Space Flight

Japanese Billionaire Calls Off His Starship Trip Around the Moon

Six years after he announced a grand plan to fly around the moon with a crew of artists in SpaceX’s Starship rocket, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa said he was canceling the project due to delays in Starship’s development.

In a series of postings to the X social-media platform, Maezawa said he signed his contract with SpaceX “based on the assumption that dearMoon would launch by the end of 2023.”

“It’s a developmental project, so it is what it is, but it is still uncertain as to when Starship can launch,” he wrote. “I can’t plan my future in this situation, and I feel terrible making the crew members wait longer, hence the difficult decision to cancel at this point in time. I apologize to those who were excited for this project to happen.”

DearMoon crew member Yemi A.D., a Czech choreographer, talks about the mission’s cancellation.

After a selection process that attracted more than a million applicants, Maezawa named eight artists and communicators, plus two alternates, to the crew in late 2022. One of the chosen crew members was Tim Dodd, a science communicator and YouTube video creator who’s known as the “Everyday Astronaut.”

“Of course I’m extremely disappointed, having dreamt about this mission since I first heard about it in 2018 and even more for the last three years since the selection process started,” Dodd wrote in an extended posting to X.

Maezawa made his fortune by starting up what would become Zozo, Japan’s largest online clothing store. He sold most of his stake in the venture to Yahoo Japan in 2019 for around $2.3 billion. A fair amount of his riches has gone toward high-profile purchases, such as the $110.5 million acquisition of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat in 2017 and the estimated $80 million fare for a trip to the International Space Station in 2021.

The mega-launch system now known as Starship was at an early stage of development in 2018 when Maezawa struck a deal with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to reserve a round-the-moon flight. The mission was envisioned as a roughly five-day trip that would give artists and performers on the level of Pablo Picasso and Michael Jackson the chance to experience space — and work that experience into their artistic creations.

The cost of the dearMoon project was never disclosed publicly, but at the time that the plan was revealed, Musk said Maezawa was providing a substantial deposit that “will have a material effect on paying for the cost of development” of the Starship system. Back then, Musk said the total development cost was on the order of $5 billion.

Developing and testing Starship has taken longer than Musk planned — which is par for the course when it comes to new types of spaceships. During the most recent Starship flight test, which took place in March, the rocket reached orbital altitude but broke up as it descended to a planned splashdown. Another flight test could take place as early as next week.

This isn’t the first time Maezawa has backtracked on his plans for spaceflight. In 2000, he pulled out of a reality-TV project that would have traced the selection of a female contestant to accompany him on a round-the-moon trip, presumably aboard Starship. Despite that precedent, the crew members for dearMoon said they were surprised by the cancellation of a trip they’d been so looking forward to.

“You didn’t ask us if we minded waiting or give us an option or discuss that you were thinking of canceling until you’d already made the decision,” Rhiannon Adam, an Irish-born photographic artist who was chosen for the crew, said in an X posting directed at Maezawa. “I can only speak for myself, but I’d have waited till it was ready.”

Another would-be spaceflier, night-sky photographer Brendan Hall, said in an online statement that “the cancellation of this mission was sudden, brief and unexpected.”

Dodd echoed that sentiment in his posting to X. “The one thing I have a hard time reconciling is the timeline,” he wrote. “Had I known that this could have ended within a year and a half of it being publicly announced, I would’ve never agreed to it. We had no prior knowledge of this possibility.”

Dodd said he remained optimistic about the long-term prospects for citizen spaceflight. “I still firmly believe that, within my lifetime, we will see missions like this happen, and while I will never be the first to do such a mission, it brings me great joy to know the future is bright and exciting,” he said.

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of MSNBC.com and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

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