Japanese billionaire aborts ‘dearMoon’ Starship private lunar mission

A Japanese billionaire who commissioned SpaceX for a private mission around the moon on a Starship rocket has abruptly canceled the project, citing current uncertainty over when the launch vehicle will be ready for flight.

“I signed the contract in 2018 based on the assumption that dearMoon will be launched by the end of 2023,” said Yusaku Maezawa, the project’s backer, on Xu. «It’s a development project so it is what it is, but it’s still not certain when Starship will be able to launch.»

The dearMoon mission was first announced in 2018 — back when the Starship was known as the Big Falcon Rocket — and was supposed to be the first Starship launch to fly humans around the Moon and back. At the time, the two sides said they were targeting as early as 2023 for the 240,000-mile trip.

Maezawa has announced eight people who will accompany him on the mission in late 2022, and the crew includes Everyday Astronaut’s Tim Dodd, South Korean idol TOP and music producer Steve Aoki. At that point, the publicly released schedule on the dearMoon website still stuck to the 2023 timeline; but four years after the project was announced, it was becoming very apparent that the target launch date was unfeasible, given that Starship had not yet performed a single orbital test flight. The project was postponed indefinitely last November.

The cancellation appears to have caught at least some crew members by surprise. «If I had known this could have ended within a year and a half after it was made public, I never would have agreed to it,» Dodd said. «We had no prior knowledge of this possibility. I expressed my opinion, even before the announcement, that dearMoon was unlikely to happen in the next few years.”

Irish photographer Rhiannon Adam, also selected for the mission, was more blunt: “As someone with a critical mind, a lot of it doesn’t make sense, especially given the timeline. I never believed that we are going to 2023 or 2024,» she said.

Reports at the time suggested that SpaceX was pursuing space tourism as a way to finance the development of the massive, extremely complex rocket. While neither SpaceX nor Maezawa have ever disclosed the likely significant amount of the flight down payment, Musk said during the mission announcement event that it was a «non-trivial amount that will have a significant impact» on the rocket’s development costs.

But SpaceX’s business has changed significantly since 2018: Since then, the company has achieved a number of impressive milestones, including certifying and flying its Dragon spacecraft with a crew for astronauts, bringing its Starlink satellite internet constellation online and increasing the launch cadence of its Falcon rocket to almost 100 per year in 2023. (The company is on track to break its own record this year.)

The company also won a significant contract from NASA to use a version of the Starship as a lunar vehicle for the agency’s Artemis program, and that no doubt significantly changed SpaceX’s priorities going forward. Space tourism had to take a backseat to the interests of the single largest customer.

SpaceX’s valuation has steadily risen, and investor appetite for SpaceX stock seems nearly insatiable. At the end of 2018, the company was valued at $30.5 billion; as of last month, it was reportedly considering a bid that could value the company at roughly $200 billion. Meanwhile, space research and news organization Payload Research estimates that SpaceX is likely to double its 2023 revenues from the previous year to $8.7 billion.

Maezawa’s fortunes seem to have changed as well. According to Forbes, his net worth is now $1.4 billion, which is only half of what it was when dearMoon went public. Maezawa also scratched his space itch in 2021, when he flew in a Russian Soyuz capsule on a 12-day trip to the International Space Station with private space flight company Space Adventures.

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