Elon Musk has introduced Yusaku Maezawa, founder of the online Japanese clothing company Zozo, as his first customer for a voyage around the moon aboard a SpaceX rocket.
“Finally, I can tell you that I choose to go to the moon,” Mr Maezawa shouted on Monday night (US time).
Mr Maezawa’s intent to follow in the contrails of American astronauts, who first looped the moon in 1968 aboard the Apollo 8 mission, was announced at an event at the company’s headquarters in the Los Angeles area.
The expensive trip would cost at least tens of millions of dollars, if not a couple of hundred million, and when it would occur was not yet announced. Neither Mr Musk nor Mr Maezawa would disclose the price.
Mr Maezawa is to ride a yet-to-be-built rocket known as the BFR, on a journey that would take four to five days, Mr Musk said.
While SpaceX’s technological achievements are significant, Mr. Musk’s forecasts of SpaceX’s timelines have usually turned out far too optimistic.
Development of the Falcon Heavy rocket, for example, which finally made a maiden test flight in February, took more than four years longer than Mr Musk anticipated.
This summer has been a tumultuous time for Mr Musk, and another of his companies, the electric carmaker Tesla. On Twitter, Mr Musk announced a plan to take the publicly traded car company private, then changed his mind three weeks later. Tesla has been struggling to meet production targets of its Model 3 sedan, and Mr Musk said he had sometimes slept at the factory.
He also enlisted his engineers to build a submarine-like escape pod to rescue 12 boys and their coach from a cave in Thailand. That proved unnecessary – the boys were able to swim out with help of divers.
But when one of the divers, Vernon Unsworth, disparaged the submarine effort, Mr Musk suggested, without evidence, that Mr Unsworth was a paedophile. On Monday, Mr Unsworth announced that he was suing Mr Musk for defamation.
By comparison, SpaceX has been an oasis of calm, launching satellites and spacecraft without incident for most of the year.
Mr Maezawa, a billionaire fashion entrepreneur, may be best known in the US for his purchase in 2017 of a 1982 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat for $US110 million ($A153 million). The artist’s sister, Lisane Basquiat, said in an interview at the time, “We were speechless,” about the price he paid.
— Yusaku Maezawa 前澤友作 (@yousuck2020) October 19, 2017
Mr Maezawa said he’d like to bring five to eight artists aboard the trip, part of a project he called Dear Moon.
This is actually the second time that SpaceX has announced that it will fly tourists to the moon and back.
In February last year, Mr Musk said that two people had put down a deposit for a cruise around the moon and that it would occur late this year. However, those two were to fly aboard the Falcon Heavy. Mr Musk said on Monday that Mr Maezawa – and an invited fellow passenger – had been his customer for that trip.
With the modernisation of electronics leading to smaller satellites and the greater lifting power of newer versions of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, the market for the Falcon Heavy is dwindling. (The Heavy has yet to make a second flight, although SpaceX lists the United States Air Force and satellite companies as future customers.)
Mr Musk said in February that SpaceX would not go to the expense and effort of making the Falcon Heavy suitable for human passengers.
At the same time, SpaceX has begun work on the BFR, its next-generation behemoth rocket, more powerful than the Saturn 5 that NASA used for the Apollo missions. The rocket is intended to replace both the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy and is ultimately designed to take 100 people on a journey to Mars.
(The “B” stands for “big”; the “R” is for “rocket”. In public, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president, states its full name as “Big Falcon Rocket.” Mr Musk, as well as the company’s news releases, remain ambiguous about what the “F” stands for.)
Even if the Falcon Heavy had been ready for the moon tourists, development of the SpaceX capsule for taking astronauts to space, which would have been required for a Falcon Heavy trip, has also been delayed.
The first flight of that spacecraft ferrying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station is scheduled for next year, and watchdog agencies within the government say further delays are possible.
Since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia to carry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station. That contract ends in November 2019.
The BFR is far more ambitious than the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy – larger, more powerful, and fully reusable – and thus even more likely to encounter technological snags, and the design of the BFR is still evolving.
Two years ago, Mr Musk described a gigantic, 12-metre-diameter rocket, then known as the Interplanetary Transport, before unveiling a slimmed-down BFR, which is only nine metres wide.
The image in the SpaceX tweet shows larger fins on the BFR than have been seen previously, giving it an appearance more reminiscent of NASA’s retired space shuttles.
On Twitter, Mr Musk was asked if this was a new version of the BFR.
“Yes,” he replied simply.
So far, seven people have paid for a trip to space, riding on a Russian Soyuz rocket for short stays at the International Space Station. (One person, Charles Simonyi, has made two trips.)
No tourists have gone to orbit since 2009. Other companies, including Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, are looking to start selling suborbital trips – rides that cross the boundary into outer space – before coming right back down, offering a few minutes of weightlessness.
-The New York Times