SpaceX BFR moon
SpaceX said it will send someone around the moon on its BFR vehicle, and will identify that person at a Sept. 17 event. Credit: SpaceX

ORLANDO — SpaceX announced Sept. 17 that a Japanese billionaire will be paying an undisclosed but significant sum to buy a flight of the company’s next-generation rocket for a flight around the moon carrying a group of artists.

In an announcement at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk announced the first private customer for its Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) system will be Yusaku Maezawa, a 42-year-old former musician who founded Zozotown, a Japanese online fashion retail site.

In the proposed mission, scheduled for 2023, a BFR will launch and fly around the moon before returning to Earth, a flight lasting four to five days. On board the vehicle will be Maezawa as well as six to eight artists he will select through a process yet to be determined.

“I did not want to have such a fantastic experience by myself,” he said. “I choose to go to the moon with artists. I choose to invite artists from around the world on my journey.”

The artists that fly on the “#dearMoon” mission will be asked to create works of art after the mission inspired by the flight. “I wish to create amazing works of art for humankind, for children of the next generation,” he said. Maezawa has been active in the art community for some time, including establishing the Contemporary Art Foundation in 2012 to support young artists.

Yusaku Maezawa
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa speaks at the Sept. 17 SpaceX event about his plans to fly artists around the moon on a BFR mission. Credit: SpaceX webcast

Neither Maezawa nor Musk would disclose the price of the flight, but Musk said that Maezawa — who had been one of the two customers for SpaceX’s earlier plans for a circumlunar flight on a Dragon announced nearly 18 months ago, but since shelved — had already made a down payment.

“It will have a material effect on paying for the cost of the development of BFR,” Musk said of the mission’s price. “It’s a non-trivial amount. It has a material impact on the BFR program. It makes a difference.”

Maezawa has an estimated net worth of $2.9 billion, according to Forbes. Musk said the estimated cost of the overall BFR development was about $5 billion. “I don’t think it’s more than 10 [billion dollars], and I don’t think it’s less than two” billion dollars, he said.

Musk also used the announcement to announce some changes to the BFR design, focused on the upper stage, or spaceship, portion. The interior cabin volume has been increased to at least 1,000 cubic meters, and up to 1,100. The vehicle also features three larger fins in the aft section, with landing legs integrated into them, and a pair of forward fins than can move.

Besides the changed fins, with improve the aerodynamic control of the vehicle when entering an atmosphere, the updated spaceship now has seven Raptor engines identical to the ones on the booster stage. “In order to minimize the development risk and cost, we decided to ‘commonize’ the engine between the booster and ship,” Musk said, adding that Raptor engines that are optimized for vacuum conditions could be added back in later.

Musk indicated the changes announced at this event should be among the last major changes in a design that has evolved significantly since being unveiled at the International Astronautical Congress nearly two years ago. “I feel like this is the final iteration in terms of broad architectural decisions” for BFR, he said, noting the changes compared to the previous version make this approach “slightly riskier” technically but the “right decision overall.”

BFR spaceship
An illustration of some of the changes to the BFR design Musk discussed at the Sept. 17 event. Credit: SpaceX webcast

An initial series of “hopper” test flights of the BFR spaceship are still planned to take place next year at SpaceX’s South Texas launch site under development. That would be followed by high-altitude, high-velocity flights in 2020, along with tests of the booster stage. “If things go well, we could be doing the first orbital flights in about two to three years,” he said, with “many” such test flights planned with crews before humans fly on the vehicle.

He offered a cautionary note about that schedule, though. “We’re definitely not sure” about the 2023 schedule for the circumlunar mission, he said. “You have to set some kind of date that’s the things-go-right date. Of course, we have reality, and things do not go right in reality.”

“It’s not 100 percent certain that we succeed in getting this to flight,” he said of BFR. “But we’re going to do everything humanly possible to bring it to flight as fast as we can and as safely as we can.”

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...