Japan’s Yusaku Maezawa revealed as first customer for SpaceX trip around the moon

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa answer questions at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk today introduced Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa as the first paying customer for a trip around the moon.

“Finally I can tell you that ‘I choose to go to the moon,’” Maezawa said, echoing President John F. Kennedy’s famous phrase.

Maezawa, 42, founded a mail-order retail business called Start Today in 1998, which spawned what’s now Japan’s largest fashion retail website, known as Zozotown. His net worth is estimated at more than $3 billion.

He’s made a name for himself as a musician and art collector as well as an entrepreneur. During tonight’s big reveal at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., Maezawa said he intended to invite six to eight artists from around the world, on the level of the late Pablo Picasso or Michael Jackson, to go around the moon with him.

“I wish very much that such artists could go to space, see the moon up close, the Earth in full view, and create works that reflect their experience,” Maezawa said.

“We better get that flight right,” Musk said, dead-serious. “This is a dangerous mission. It’s definitely dangerous.”

Musk said Maezawa came to SpaceX to ask for the ride.

“He is, I think, the bravest person and the most willing to do so,” Musk said. “He stepped forward to do it. We’re honored that he chose us.”

Musk did note that Maezawa invited him to come along, and Maezawa nodded along. “I don’t know … all right, maybe we’ll both be on it,” Musk said.

Maezawa declined to say how much he was paying for the weeklong trip.

“But it’s going to be free for the artists, so that’s cool,” Musk added. He said Maezawa has already paid a significant deposit on a fare that “will have a material effect on paying for the cost of development of BFR.”

Musk said he expected the cost to be on the order of $5 billion. He said that cost would be covered by revenue from SpaceX’s launch business and from its Starlink satellite internet venture, as well as by fares like the one being paid by Maezawa.

Theoretically, a fare that covers 5 percent of a $5 billion development cost would amount to $250 million. “I don’t think we can, obviously, do any percentage math. That would kind of give it away,” Musk said. “But it’s a material percentage.”

For what it’s worth, Musk’s net worth is currently estimated at $20.7 billion.

Tonight’s announcement  followed days of speculation over the identity of the first passenger — and months of chatter about the capabilities of the BFR, an acronym for “Big Falcon Rocket” in its G-rated interpretation.

Musk laid out his first design for the mammoth two-stage BFR in 2016 at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, and refined it for the 2017 IAC meeting in Australia. The BFR’s principal purpose is to carry settlers and their stuff to Mars, 100 passengers at a time.

Last year, Musk said the BFR could be used for trips to the moon and other celestial destinations, as well as for suborbital point-to-point trips on Earth.

Short-hop testing of the BFR’s second stage, nicknamed the Big Falcon Spaceship or BFS, could begin as early as next year at SpaceX’s launch site near Brownsville, Texas. Those tests will take the form of progressively higher up-and-down test flights. The flights to orbit and beyond may be launched from a platform floating at sea, Musk said.

If all goes according to plan, spaceflights could start in the early 2020s. Maezawa is aiming to take his round-the-moon trip in 2023, accompanied by artists such as film directors, painters, fashion designers and musicians. However, Musk acknowledged that he was “definitely not sure” the project could meet the 2023 launch date.

“There are so many uncertainties. I mean, this is a ridiculously big rocket. It’s got so much advanced technology. It’s not 100 percent certain that we succeed in getting this to flight,” Musk said. “I think it’s pretty likely, but it’s not certain.”

The latest version of Musk’s vision specifies an overall length of 118 meters (387 feet), with a 55-meter-long (180-foot-long) second-stage spaceship. In comparison, NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket stood 111 meters (364 feet) tall on its launch pad.

The design includes two fins near the front of the spaceship and three fin-shaped landing legs in the back. The front fins and two of the back fins would be steerable to guide the ship to an aerodynamic landing at the end of each space mission.

Both the second-stage spaceship and the first-stage booster would be reusable and refuelable.

Musk said the launch system would be capable of putting 100 metric tons in low Earth orbit, and the second stage could be refueled in orbit to send that payload onward to Mars or other destinations.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell was quoted today as saying that the company had its “eyes on the prize” for an initial BFR flight to Mars in 2024, although she acknowledged that SpaceX’s timelines often slip to the right.

SpaceX said last year that it planned to send two private citizens around the moon in a Dragon crew capsule to be launched by a Falcon Heavy rocket. The company said the passengers paid a “significant deposit” for the trip but did not identify them.

In February, SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy for the first time. However, Musk said that rocket would not be certified to carry people, which ruled out a round-the-moon trip on a Falcon Heavy. Instead, SpaceX shifted its future focus to the BFR. In response to a question, Musk indicated that Maezawa was one of the would-be passengers interested in the earlier plan. “It’s the same person,” he said.

Some have voiced concern that Musk’s focus on the BFR, as well as his involvement in other ventures such as Tesla, the Boring Company and Neuralink, would distract him from SpaceX’s main business.

But in a tweet sent out before tonight’s big reveal, Musk emphasized that the “top SpaceX priority” is to launch national security missions and to get the company’s Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules ready to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX’s crewed missions are currently scheduled to begin by the middle of next year.

Boeing is working in parallel to get its CST-100 Starliner capsule ready for crewed flights to and from the space station. Its timeline currently lags slightly behind SpaceX’s, but both timelines are still subject to change.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg has said more than once that the first person to walk on Mars will get there on a Boeing-built rocket, in an apparent reference to NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System. When asked about Muilenburg’s claim tonight, Musk replied, “Game on … let’s do it.”

For more information about Maezawa’s mission, check out the Dear Moon website, the @dearmoonproject Twitter account, and the #DearMoon hashtag.

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