Dear Moon
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa (center) with the people he selected for his "dearMoon" Starship flight around the moon. Credit: dearMoon

ORLANDO, Fla. — A Japanese billionaire who was the first commercial customer for SpaceX’s Starship vehicle has abruptly pulled the plug on his proposed quixotic circumlunar mission.

In a June 1 message, Yusaku Maezawa announced he was canceling his “dearMoon” mission, which was to fly him and eight artists around the moon on a Starship vehicle. He cited ongoing delays in the mission and uncertainty when it would launch.

“Arrangements were being made with SpaceX to target the launch by the end of 2023,” the dearMoon project said in a statement posted on its website. “Unfortunately, however, launch within 2023 became unfeasible, and without clear schedule certainty in the near-term, it is with a heavy heart that Maezawa made the unavoidable decision to cancel the project.”

“I signed the contract in 2018 based on the assumption that dearMoon would launch by the end of 2023,” Maezawa posted on social media June 1. “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.”

Maezawa was the first customer that SpaceX announced for Starship in a September 2018 event at SpaceX’s headquarters, back when the vehicle was still known as BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket. Maezawa made a down payment of undisclosed size, which SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk called “a non-trivial amount” and one that would have “a material impact on the BFR program.”

At the time the goal was to fly the mission by 2023, but even then Musk cautioned that schedule might not be achievable. “You have to set some kind of date that’s the things-go-right date,” he said then. “Of course, we have reality, and things do not go right in reality.”

Starship has yet to fly to the moon, carry people or even achieve orbit. SpaceX is gearing up for a fourth integrated test flight of Starship/Super Heavy, now scheduled for no earlier than June 6, that will fly the vehicle on a suborbital trajectory with the primary goal of demonstrating that both the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage can make it back to the surface without breaking apart first.

SpaceX has increasingly focused on getting Starship flying so that it can perform a crewed lunar landing for NASA under a Human Landing System contract awarded in 2021. The company is also working to increase Starship’s flight rate to support launches of Starlink satellites.

However, Maezawa had also been slow to select the people to accompany him. It was only in December 2022 that dearMoon publicly revealed the eight people who would fly with Maezawa on the mission, along with two alternates. By that time, though, it was clear that Starship would not be ready to fly the mission in 2023 or for potentially several years later, and the project didn’t provide a schedule for the mission when it announced the crew.

Some of the people selected for dearMoon spoke out on social media after Maezawa announced the cancellation. “We had no prior knowledge of this possibility,” said Tim Dodd, a YouTube personality known as “Everyday Astronaut.” “I voiced my opinions, even before the announcement, that it was improbable for dearMoon to happen in the next few years.”

He added he was “extremely disappointed” by the decision. “I slowly allowed myself to envision a trip to the Moon one little bit by little bit.”

“We have been dropped, apparently due to impatience,” said Rhiannon Adam, an Irish photographer who was the only woman on the prime crew for dearMoon, who offered a sharper critique of Maezawa’s decision. “As someone with a critical brain, much of this doesn’t make sense, particularly with regard to timeline. I never believed we were going in 2023, or 2024.”

She said she and others selected for dearMoon were willing to wait but were not consulted by Maezawa before he announced the cancellation. “I am left doubting the project’s integrity, and feel used.”

Maezawa did get to go to space, but not with SpaceX. In December 2021 he and his assistant, Yozo Hirano, flew on a Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station, spending a week and a half in space before returning. That mission was arranged by Space Adventures, a space tourism company.

There is one other Starship commercial lunar mission on the books: in October 2022, Dennis Tito, the first commercial space tourist to visit the ISS in 2001, announced that he and his wife would fly on a Starship mission around the moon along with up to 10 other people. Neither he nor SpaceX announced a date for the mission then or provided updates on its status since then.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...