Meet Yusaku Maezawa, the first tourist SpaceX will fly to the Moon

Elon Musk's company has revealed the first private citizen to be sent around the Moon, but still has to build a rocket and spacecraft capable of getting there

Credit: DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images

On December 13, 1972, the commander of the Apollo 17 lunar mission, Eugene Cernan, took his final steps on the surface of the Moon as he climbed up into the lunar module. In the 46 years that have passed since then, not one human has followed. Although we’ve since sent rovers back to the Moon and Mars, and probes have been sent to Jupiter, Saturn and Pluto, no humans have left low-Earth orbit since the Apollo 17 mission.

Now SpaceX is readying itself to end this decades-long lunar drought by sending the first private passenger to fly around the Moon. Yusaku Maezawa a 42-year-old Japanese billionaire and founder of the country's largest online retailer was unveiled by SpaceX in an announcement made early on Tuesday morning.

An art enthusiast, Maezawa said he would invite between six to eight artists with him and then ask them to create something after they return to Earth. A website set up to promote the project reads, "A painter, musician, film director, fashion designer... Some of Earth's greatest talents will board a spacecraft." If everything goes to plan, Maezawa will make the trip to circumnavigate, but not land on, the Moon in 2023.

Maezawa won’t be the first ever space tourist, however. In April 2001 Dennis Tito spent eight days on board the International Space Station after paying the US-based company Space Adventures a reported $20 million (£14m) for the trip. Since Tito’s expedition, six other individuals have paid to fly on a Russian Soyuz capsule to the ISS.

SpaceX announced its intention to send humans to the Moon in February 2017 when the company released a statement saying that two private individuals had paid “a significant deposit” in order to secure a place on a future lunar mission. This launch, which was optimistically slated to take place in spring 2018, was meant to involve a Falcon Heavy rocket, the same rocket used to launch a Tesla Roadster in February 2018.

Musk’s firm later tweaked these plans when it confirmed that it would not pursue a crewed version of the Falcon Heavy and would instead concentrate its crewed efforts on its next-generation rocket, BFR. It’s this rocket, officially named Big Falcon Rocket, that will be used to send paying customers on a journey around the Moon. But first Musk and his team will have to actually build it.

The first BFR test flight is not scheduled to take place until 2019 and Musk has a history of setting ambitious launch dates that his company struggles to meet. The Falcon Heavy was originally supposed to launch in 2013, but it took an extra five years to get the vehicle ready.

According to Per Wimmer, a founding astronaut of Virgin Galactic who already has a space trip reservation with Space Adventures, it’s unlikely that SpaceX is planning on offering many space flights to private individual. “Satellites and carrying stuff up there is [SpaceX’s] main business, it's transportation of goods to the ISS,” he says. “They don’t market anything about taking anyone to space because they can’t yet.” Unlike SpaceX, Virgin Galactic already has more than 700 would-be-astronauts who have put down deposits of a cumulative $100m (£75m) to secure their place on the SpaceShipTwo spaceplane.

To take humans to the Moon, SpaceX will first have to complete the development of its Dragon 2 spacecraft – a crew-carrying capsule that will sit atop the launch rocket. Unlike the original Dragon spacecraft, which has been used to deliver cargo to the ISS, the Dragon 2 will be designed and tested so it is capable of taking crew to the ISS and beyond. Nasa already has plans to use the Dragon 2 and Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft to shuttle crew to the ISS. Development of the Dragon 2 has already been delayed, however, and the first crewed test flight is now scheduled for 2019.

Once SpaceX has finished building and testing both the BFR and the Dragon 2, it should be all systems go for the lunar mission. Then, Wimmer says, it all comes down to the physical preparedness of the individuals being launched into space. From his own experiences preparing for spaceflight as a private citizen, Wimmer, who is a personal friend of Musk, says that there the main two things that Maezawa will have to prepare for are the g-force experienced at launch and the feeling of weightlessness. “These are the two big things from a physical point of view,” he says.

To prepare himself for his future space flights, Wimmer has made multiple visits to centrifuges in the US and Russia which simulate the g-force experienced at launch and re-entry. Astronauts are spun in a pod attached to a large rotating arm to mimic the forces of upwards of three times Earth’s gravity or more. Without prior exposure to g-force, the space travellers might black out due to their blood pooling in the lower part of their body while being subjected to the force of spaceflight.

The other thing that Maezawa will want to familiarise themselves with is the feeling of weightlessness, which can make astronauts feel like they’re about to be sick. In his own preparations, Wimmer has made multiple trips on zero-gravity flights that simulate weightlessness for very short stretches at a time. “Once you're in space your mind and your balance has to get used to weightlessness,” Wimmer says.

Apart from the g-force and zero-gravity preparations, Wimmer says it’s unlikely that Maezawa will have to do much physical preparation beyond keeping himself in reasonable shape. “You don't have to be a superman but the better physical condition you can put yourself into the better,” he says. Any preparations are just to make sure that there are no nasty surprises on launch day. “By the time you sit on a rocket, you’re actually feeling quite comfortable.”