SpaceX's BFR moon mission and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa: Things we learned
SpaceX's ambitious quest to transform humanity into a multi-planetary species has a new billionaire benefactor: Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese entrepreneur, was announced Monday as the company's first private passenger to fly around the moon, a feat not accomplished since Apollo astronauts last visited in 1972.
"Finally I can tell you that I choose to go to the moon," 42-year-old Maezawa, sharing a stage with CEO Elon Musk, told a crowd of SpaceX employees and media representatives at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
But it wasn't just Maezawa's announcement as the passenger that was newsworthy: New details about SpaceX's Big Falcon Rocket, the first lunar mission in 2023, surprise passengers and even launch sites made it into the presentation. Here's what we learned.
SpaceX's lunar customer: Yusaku Maezawa
Maezawa is known for his substantial art collection and development of art foundations, as well as being the founder of Zozotown, a large online fashion mall. He more recently developed ZOZO, a platform that allows shoppers to use smartphones to generate body measurements and order custom-fitting clothing without leaving home.
Forbes has calculated Maezawa's value at around $2.9 billion, making him the 18th richest person in Japan. He uses tens of millions of dollars from his wealth to support art – aside from foundations, he also plans on opening a museum near Tokyo.
While neither Musk nor Maezawa could disclose how much he's paying for the trip to the moon, which will not land on the surface, Musk did say the investment is substantial enough to support continued development of BFR.
"We're honored that he would choose us," Musk said. "This is not us choosing him. He is a very brave person to do this."
Surprise passengers will fly with Maezawa
In keeping with his theme of supporting art, Maezawa had a surprise announcement: Six to eight artists will fly with him on the mission in 2023 for a project known as #dearMoon.
"These artists will be asked to create something after their return to Earth, and these masterpieces will inspire the dreamer within all of us," Maezawa said. "I have not decided which artists I'd like to invite, but if possible, I'd like to reach out to top artists that represent our planet from various fields."
Those could include painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, film directors, fashion designers and architects, to name a few. Their trips and training would be fully funded.
"We have always been inspired by the moon. Take for example Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' or Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' or The Beatles' 'Mr. Moonlight,'" he said. "Through the ages, the moon has filled our imagination."
New technical details on BFR
Since its announcement by Musk in 2016, the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, has shrunken to slightly more manageable levels for SpaceX. It was previously known as the Interplanetary Transport System.
The entire system will clock in at 387 feet in length, Musk said, and the top-loaded spaceship, unofficially referred to as the Big Falcon Spaceship, will be about 180 feet in length.
The spaceship now includes three large fins flanking the engines on the rear, two of which serve an aerodynamic purpose and are actuated; the third, meanwhile, doesn't serve a purpose aside from functioning as a vertical landing leg. Musk said he enjoys the spaceship's overall aesthetics, and the third leg matches the first two in design for that reason.
"Overall, I think it looks beautiful," Musk said. "I love the Tintin rocket design, so I kind of wanted to bias it towards that."
On the construction front, the first cylinder section has already been built and the system's Raptor engines have already passed initial tests. Next up are domes and engine sections.
Launch sites still to be determined
Musk said launch sites have not yet been selected for BFR, a development that will likely be under close watch by the Space Coast and those hoping for a liftoff from Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Short hops for the spaceship, meaning quick takeoffs and landings, are planned for SpaceX's sites in Texas.
Interestingly, Musk said SpaceX is also considering BFR for sea-based launches on an ocean platform, similar to the company's recovery vessels known as autonomous spaceport drone ships, or ASDS. Such a vessel would likely be much larger than the drone ships.
Program cost: In the billions
Musk said he anticipates the BFR program as a whole to cost the company around $5 billion in development, but he also doesn't expect it to exceed $10 billion.
"It's difficult to say what it would end up being," he said. "Which would be really quite a small amount for a project of this nature."
SpaceX will fund the program through continued satellite launches for private and government customers on Falcon 9 rockets; transporting astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station via Crew Dragon; and the deployment of Starlink, an ambitious project that aims to beam broadband connectivity down to Earth from a constellation of thousands of satellites.
As it stands, SpaceX spends about 5 percent of its resources on BFR development, but Musk expects that number to ramp up significantly in the coming years. The foremost priority for the company, he said, is the safe and successful launch of astronauts to the ISS on Crew Dragon in the second half of next year.
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