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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Fly me to the moon: Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa revealed as the first SpaceX tourist

The first space traveller has been announced. Here's all you need to know about interstellar tourism

SpaceX founder Elon Musk, left, introduces Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, right, as the first private passenger on a trip around the moon. Chris Carlson / AP
SpaceX founder Elon Musk, left, introduces Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, right, as the first private passenger on a trip around the moon. Chris Carlson / AP

A Japanese billionaire and online fashion tycoon will be the first man to fly on a SpaceX rocket around the Moon as early as 2023.

Yusaku Maezawa, 42, said he plans to bring six to eight artists along "to inspire the dreamer in all of us".

Mr Maezawa will be the first lunar traveller since the last US Apollo mission in 1972. He paid an unspecified amount of money for the privilege.

"Ever since I was a kid, I have loved the Moon," he said at SpaceX headquarters and rocket factory in Hawthorne, California on Monday. "This is my lifelong dream."

Mr Maezawa is the chief executive of Japan's largest online fashion mall, and is the 18th richest person in Japan with a fortune of $3 billion, according to the business magazine Forbes.

The tycoon's other hobby is amassing valuable works of modern art. Last year he announced the acquisition of a Jean-Michel Basquiat masterpiece worth $110.5 million.

His love of art led him to decide to invite artists to come along, he said.

"I would like to invite six to eight artists from around the world to join me on this mission to the Moon," he said.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa speaks near a Falcon 9 rocket. AFP
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa speaks next to a Falcon 9 rocket. AFP

"They will be asked to create something after they return to Earth. These masterpieces will inspire the dreamer within all of us." He said the plan is to pick "artists I love" to go along, but gave no further specifics.

SpaceX chief Elon Musk described Mr Maezawa as the "bravest" and "best adventurer".

"He stepped forward," Mr Musk said. "We are honoured that he chose us."

Mr Musk said he would not reveal the price Mr Maezawa paid for the Moon trip, but said it would be "free for the artists."

"This is dangerous, to be clear. This is no walk in the park," Mr Musk cautioned.

"When you are pushing the frontier, it is not a sure thing. There is a chance something could go wrong."

Still, when asked by reporters if Mr Musk would be a passenger, he left the door open to the possibility.

"As far as me going, I'm not sure. He [Maezawa] did suggest like maybe that I would join on this trip. I don't know," Musk said.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," said Mr Maezawa.

"All right. Maybe we will both be on it," Mr Musk said to cheers and applause.

How will the tourist travel?

The mode of transport will be SpaceX's Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) which is still in development. The super powerful launch vehicle, which would be reusuable, has 31 engines and the capacity to lift 150 tonnes into space.

Mr Musk said last year that he was hopeful that the BFR would be able to launch and land at least two cargo flights on Mars by 2022.

"I feel fairly confident that we can complete the ship and launch in about five years," Musk said at the time.

Mr Musk confirmed on Twitter that the image used in the tweet to announce the unveiling was a new rendering of the BFR.

The original plan was for two paying passengers to fly around the moon this year, using a Falcon Heavy rocket and a Dragon crew capsule, but that has since changed.

The BFR was said last year by Musk to be a competitor to the commercial airline industry as it could "fly to most places on Earth in 30 minutes". He said then that the BFR would contain 40 cabins capable of ferrying roughly 100 people at a time.

First the moon, then Mars

Mr Musk has his sights set beyond the moon. His ultimate goal is to colonise Mars.

He had previously talked about sending an unmanned "Red Dragon" spacecraft to Mars in 2018, but that plan, as well as the spacecraft, were shelved. A new plan calls for the first BFR to land on Mars in 2022, followed by crewed missions in 2024.

"Our aspirational goal is to send our first cargo mission to Mars in 2022. The objectives for the first mission will be to confirm water resources and identify hazards along with putting in place initial power, mining, and life support infrastructure," a statement on SpaceX's website says.

"A second mission, with both cargo and crew, is targeted for 2024, with primary objectives of building a propellant depot and preparing for future crew flights. The ships from these initial missions will also serve as the beginnings of our first Mars base, from which we can build a thriving city and eventually a self-sustaining civilisation on Mars."

The BFR would enter the Mars atmosphere at 7.5 kilometres per second and "decelerate aerodynamically". SpaceX says the BFR's heat shield is designed to withstand multiple entries.

Nasa's Curiosity Rover landed on the Red Planet in 2012 and has been transmitting high-resolution photographs of the landscape since, with images and information posted regularly on its Twitter account.

Who are the competitors?

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, in which Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments has a 37.8 per cent stake, says it has sold about 650 tickets aboard its own planned space voyages but has not set out a date for flights to start. The company is charging $250,000 per ticket.

Those who were reported to have signed up for a ride included Hollywood actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher.

Mr Branson's project suffered a setback in 2014 when its SpaceShipTwo craft VSS Enterprise disintegrated shortly after being released from the White Knight mothership over California's Mojave Desert, killing the co-pilot.

Its new ship, VSS Unity, has been in testing and reached an altitude of 170,000 feet in July – the first time it had reached the mesosphere. The company had stressed that commercial space flights would not take place until it is fully satisfied it can carry them out safely.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, started his own space company called Blue Origin in 2000.

Reuters reported in July that the company planned to charge passengers about $200,000 to $300,000 for its first trips into space next year on board the New Shepard vehicle.

The New Shepard is designed to autonomously fly six passengers more than 100 kilometres above Earth into suborbital space, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet before the pressurised capsule returns to earth under parachutes.

The capsule features six observation windows, Blue Origin says, which are nearly three times as tall as those on a Boeing 747 jetliner.

It's been a while...

As SpaceX is keen to point out on its website, only 24 humans have been to the moon, and no one has visited since the last Apollo mission in 1972.

Twenty-four Nasa astronauts flew to the moon from 1968 through 1972, of which 12 walked on the surface. Next July will be the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing by Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Nasa is shooting for its own fly-by of the moon, around 2023 with a crew. The space agency aims to build a gateway in the vicinity of the moon, complete with staff, during the 2020s. It is envisioned as a base for exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond.

UAE's plans

The UAE has its own space plans and recently revealed the names of the country's first two astronauts, one of which is due to make it into space next year.

The first astronaut will lift off in April, as part of the agreement with Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency. As part of the crew on a Soyuz spaceship, the astronaut will spend 10 days conducting scientific research on the ISS before returning to Earth.

Then there is the UAE Space Agency’s Mars Mission, which is scheduled for launch in 2020, although it will not reach the Red Planet until the following year, which marks the UAE’s 50th anniversary.

The UAE Space Agency was established in 2014 and became the first Arab country to join the International Space Exploration Coordination Group.

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