SpaceX to send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa to the Moon ... with room for his friends
If Elon Musk's palms were sweaty during any one of SpaceX's rocket launches over the past decade, just imagine for a second that eight world-famous cultural icons were strapped in for the ride. "We better get that flight right. We will be doing everything we possibly can to make sure that is a good flight," the CEO said today, and not in a hypothetical sense.
In the entire history of space exploration, a total of 24 humans have traveled to the Moon. Billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is now in line to join them, with SpaceX today announcing the Japanese art collector, musician and entrepreneur has signed on to become its first private passenger and the first private astronaut to travel to the Moon.
But he won't be alone. In a presentation lasting almost two hours at SpaceX headquarters today, Maezawa and Musk presented their vision for the first journey of the space tourism era, a project dubbed "Dear Moon," where six to eight artists would travel with Maezawa around the Moon in a redesigned BFR (Big Falcon Rocket).
A new interplanetary transport system
The BFR was first announced in 2016, with Musk detailing a reusable rocket that lands and needs only refueling before it can fly again. The latest iteration has the vehicle standing 118 m (387 ft) tall, using 31 main Raptor engines to provide 5,400 tons of thrust and capable of lifting a payload of more than 100 metric tons (220,000 lb) to low-Earth orbit. The booster would then return to Earth for reuse, while the orbiting BFR would be refueled for journeys into deep space.
"BFR is really intended as an interplanetary transport system that is capable of getting from Earth to anywhere in the solar system, as long as you establish propellant depots along the way," Musk said.
The BFR vehicle is powered by seven raptor engines, and while there are three wings at the rear, only two of those are actuated, with the other serving purely as landing gear. When it comes to flying and landing, Musk said the way BFR performs is kind of "counter intuitive," laying flat on its belly during re-entry to essentially use its mass as an airbrake.
"The way it operates is more like a skydiver than an aircraft," he said. "Almost the entire time that it is re-entering it is just trying to brake, just trying to stop, doing everything that it can to shed velocity while distributing that force over as much surface area as possible. Two of the three rear wings actuate and it requires a huge amount of force – in the mega newton class – to move those wings. The third fin does not actuate and is not a vertical stabilizer as it may appear, it is actually just a leg."
SpaceX has constructed the first cylinder sections of the BFR at its facility in the Port of Los Angeles, and Musk says it will be moving on to the domes and engine sections soon. The company plans to conduct grasshopper test flights next year, high-altitude, high-velocity tests in 2020, first orbital flights within two to three years and then launch for the Moon in 2023. Though Musk was pretty honest when pressed on the likelihood of meeting this timeline.
"We're definitely not sure, I want to be clear," he said. "I think we've been pretty unsure about prior dates too … I mean you have to set some kind of date that is kind of like the 'if things go right' date. Of course, then you have reality and things do not go right in reality, there are many setbacks and issues.
"There are so many uncertainties, this is a ridiculously big rocket, it's got so much advanced technology," he continued. "I mean, it's not 100 percent certain that we will succeed in getting this to flight. I mean, I think it's pretty likely, but it's not certain. We are going to do everything possible to get it to flight as quickly as we can and as safely as we can."
In February 2017, SpaceX first announced plans to fly people around the Moon aboard its Falcon Heavy rocket, though has had little to say on the matter since. Musk confirmed today that Maezawa was one of those people, and he certainly seemed happy to share the news.
"Finally I can tell you that I choose to go to the Moon!" he said to applause after arriving on stage.
Rather than flying solo, Maezawa hopes to use the trip to inspire new works from some of Earth's most creative minds, and said that using art to contribute to world peace was his lifelong dream. For his Dear Moon project, Maezawa booked out the entire BFR for himself and will invite six to eight artists from around the world to join him. They will be asked to create something once they return, hopefully inspired by space and a close encounter with the lunar surface
"Ever since I was a kid I have loved the Moon, just staring at the Moon fueled my imagination, it's always there and has continued to inspire humanity," Maezawa said. "That is why I could not pass up this opportunity to see the Moon up close, but at the same time I did not want to have such a fantastic experience by myself, that would be a bit lonely. I want to share this experience with as many people as possible."
He is yet to decide which artists will be extended an invitation, but hopes to lure folks from a wide range of disciplines, including painters, photographers, musicians, film directors, fashion designers and architects. To indicate the calibre of artist he has in mind, Maezawa presented a slide showing names like Picasso, Warhol, Michael Jackson, Coco Chanel and John Lennon.
"These are all artists that I adore, but sadly are no longer with us," he said. "This is when I thought, but there are so many artists with us today."
SpaceX is yet to devise a training program for Maezawa and his friends, but Musk made no bones about the risks involved.
"It is dangerous, to be clear, this is no walk in the park," he said. "This will require a lot of training, when you are pushing the frontier it is not a sure thing. It is not just taking a flight somewhere. There is a chance that something could go wrong. We will do everything we can to minimize that, but whenever it is the first flight of a new technology and we're talking about deep space, you have to be a very brave person."
The pair were unwilling to divulge the cost of this first ride on the BFR, but Musk did say that Maezawa made a significant deposit, one that will have a material effect on paying for the development of the BFR. "He puts his money where his mouth is. He is legit."
All up, the crew is expected to spend around a week in space. The exact mission profile is yet to be decided, but Musk imagines that it would skim pretty close to the lunar surface, zoom out beyond the Moon, and then come zooming back in. As for what the crew would do along the way, Musk said the BFR's interior would be set up specifically for that mission with cabins and common areas, along with plenty of room for zero gravity games.
"What is the most fun you can have in zero g?" he said. "That for sure is a key thing, fun is underrated. What is the most enjoyable thing we could possibly do? We will do that."
Musk said that SpaceX was yet to decide whether it would do a test run around the Moon beforehand, but did say it would be important to test the vehicle thoroughly before putting anyone on board. He also reiterated his commitment to making humans a multi-planetary species.
"There are many things that make people sad or depressed about the future, and becoming a spacefaring civilization makes people excited about the future, something that makes you glad to be human being. I hope people see it that way, that's the intent of the BFR, to make people excited about the future."
You can see the full webcast of SpaceX's announcement below.