Elon Musk announced at a press conference in Hawthorne, California on Monday night that SpaceX has its first civilian passenger willing to pay to go around the moon and back on the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) in 2023: Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, the founder of Japan’s largest online fashion retailer Zozotown, who has an estimated net worth of $2.9 billion.
If this mission actually happens, Maezawa won’t be alone. At the press conference, Maezawa said that he plans to bring along with six to eight not-yet-selected artists artists from different disciplines for the BFR lunar mission, which could include painters, film directors, fashion designers, and musicians. (Did we hear Grimes? Azealia Banks?) Beaming before the audience, Maezawa echoed the famous words of John F. Kennedy and declared, “I choose to go to the moon,” and announced that he has officially dubbed the BFR lunar mission “Dear Moon Project.”
“For me, this project is very meaningful,” Maezawa said. “I thought long and hard about how awesome it would be to become the first private passenger to go the moon. At the same time, I thought about how I would give back to the world and how I would contribute to world peace. This is my lifelong dream.”
When asked, Musk would not disclose how much money Maezawa gave to SpaceX toward the mission—only that Maezawa’s donation has had a “material impact” on the construction of the BFR. At this point, only the cylindrical base has been built at the construction site in the Port of Los Angeles. Maezawa said that he had made a down payment on the mission, but did not clarify how much.
Musk repeated SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell’s statement from last week that the company hopes to test the rocket at the end of next year. However, it’s very likely that SpaceX will not meet its proposed launch date of 2023, and Musk personally admitted such. “We’re definitely not sure [about 2023],” Musk said. “You have to set some sort of ‘if things go right date.’ Then we have reality, and things do not go right in reality.”
The biggest update from this press conference is that Maezawa could be a BFR passenger, but even that isn’t a complete shock. Musk tweeted an emoji of a Japanese flag last Thursday, hinting that the paying passenger was a Japanese billionaire. Maezawa also has a history of paying large sums of money for personal projects, especially ones with an artistic component. In 2016, he paid $57.2 million for a painting by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
A BFR lunar orbit mission, which at this point remains hypothetical, would be the first civilian mission to the moon. No human has flown to or landed on the Moon since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, the last mission of the Apollo program. But a lot would have to go right in order for this BFR mission to actually happen: First, SpaceX has to nail a NASA Commercial Crew mission in January 2020. The company is also relying on profits from satellite contracts with parties like the Department of Defense, as well as profits from its global satellite internet project Starlink, for which only a handful of satellites have been launched. Optimistically, according to Musk, the BFR won’t even become a full-fledged priority until the end of 2019.
So in essence, this announcement is a much-needed distraction from less-than-flattering news coverage of Musk over the past several months. On Monday, Vernon Unsworth, a diver Musk repeatedly accused of being a “pedo” and a “child rapist,” filed a defamation suit seeking $75,000 from Musk as compensation for reputational damage.
Musk has also famously fought against Tesla employees’ efforts to unionize. Employees have described grueling work conditions, life threatening injuries,racial harassment, and age discrimination. Musk is also being probed by the Securities Exchange Commission for tweeting that he would taking Tesla private at $420 per share, and then reversing his decision days later. Last week, Musk had a (softball) appearance where he smoked weed on the Joe Rogan Experience—which for some reason sent Tesla stocks plummeting. Not to mention, Musk announced plans to create a website that rates the credibility of news outlets when he decided he wasn’t satisfied with the recent press coverage of Tesla.
Amidst this controversy, SpaceX has largely soldiered on unaffected, with its rocket launches and landings—unprecedented two-and-a-half years ago—are now routine. But a number of crucial questions about the BFR lunar mission remain unanswered. Musk said that the exact cost of constructing the BFR is “difficult to say,” but it could possibly amount to $5 billion. “I dont think it’s more than 10 [billion dollars] and I dont think it’s less than 2 [billion dollars],” Musk said.
Musk also couldn’t clarify how many tests the BFR would conduct before human passengers are allowed on it, or even how close the BFR would approach the moon on its mission. “I think it’d be pretty exciting to skim the surface, go real close, then zoom out far then go back around,” Musk said.
Musk did describe a scheme in which the BFR would approach the Moon at 6 Gs, but quickly added, “this is pretty off the cuff here, but these are pretty closeish numbers.” At this point, it doesn’t feel like Musk knows much more about the mission than we do.
So, what do we know about the BFR than we didn’t know before? Well, the BFR design now includes seven of SpaceX’s new “Raptor” engines rather than six, and only two wing-like structures and a leg rather than six wing-like structures. Musk also said that the eventual launch site of the BFR will be outside of Brownsville, Texas.
But these are only minor updates. The real draw of this conference was the beautiful concept art that Musk is surely hoping that people circulate rather than the news about his personal antics. And of course, Musk eagerly fed off of the energy of the crowd in what was a much-needed moment focused on SpaceX’s work rather than his antics. He repeated his spiel that becoming a “spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species” on Earth, Mars, Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and planets in other star systems is the best possible prospect for the future of humanity.
“There’s so many things that make people sad or depressed about the future,” Musk said. “But I think becoming a spacefaring civilization is one of those things that makes you excited about the future, it makes you excited to wake up in the morning. This is something that you can look forward to, something that makes you happy to be human being. I hope people will see it that way.”
It’s worth noting that Musk’s intent to eventually “colonize” other planets may not be legal, but the US is actively looking for a work-around. Per the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which the US and dozens of other nations signed, it’s illegal for a nation to own property on celestial bodies. But earlier this year, Congress passed the Space Commerce Free Enterprise Bill, which effectively argues that this foundational space treaty doesn’t apply to private entities like SpaceX.
The specifics of this hypothetical and heavily-funded BFR lunar mission are far from worked out, but in the meantime, Musk is taking the opportunity to bask in the spotlight. When asked whether he plans on joining Maezawa to the mission to the moon, Musk teased, “He [Maezawa] suggested that I’ll join on this trip, maybe we’ll both be on it.” The audience of SpaceX employees and select journalists burst into applause.