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

PARIS — SpaceX plans to announce the identity of the first person it intends to send around the moon next week as its on-again, off-again lunar ambitions appear to be back on.

In a pair of tweets late Sept. 13, the company said it has signed up a person to fly around the moon on the company’s next-generation launch system, formally known as Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), and that it would announce the identity of that person in an event Sept. 17 at 9 p.m. Eastern.

“SpaceX has signed the world’s first private passenger to fly around the Moon aboard our BFR launch vehicle — an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of traveling to space,” the company tweeted. “Find out who’s flying and why on Monday, September 17.”

SpaceX has signed the world’s first private passenger to fly around the Moon aboard our BFR launch vehicle—an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of traveling to space. Find out who’s flying and why on Monday, September 17.

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 14, 2018

SpaceX announced plans to fly humans around the moon in February 2017. At the time, the company said it would fly two people around the moon on a Crew Dragon spacecraft, launched on its Falcon Heavy rocket then under development, as soon as late 2018. The company said it had signed up two people for the mission, but did not disclose their identities.

“I think this should be a really exciting mission that gets the world really excited about sending people into deep space again,” said SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk during a call with reporters. “I think it should be super inspirational.”

SpaceX, though, made no subsequent announcements about the proposed mission, and did not reveal the identities of the customers. Asked about the lunar mission during a conference in Luxembourg last November, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell offered no updates on the development of the mission.

There was, though, interest in such missions, she added. “The most surprising thing about that is that there are as many people as there are who want to go do that, and can seemingly afford to do that.”

During briefings for the first launch of the Falcon Heavy in February, nearly a year after SpaceX’s original announcement, Musk indicated that the company wasn’t planning to pursue those original plans, as it would not human-rate the Falcon Heavy rocket.

“It looks like BFR development is moving quickly, and it will not be necessary to qualify Falcon Heavy for crewed spaceflight,” Musk said during a pre-launch call with reporters. “We kind of tabled the Crew Dragon on Falcon Heavy in favor of focusing our energy on BFR.”

The BFR concept features two reusable stages, a booster and a spaceship capable of carrying dozens of people on missions to the moon or Mars. Musk has said that initial work has focused on the spaceship element, which could be ready for small suborbital “hops” next year from a launch site the company is developing in South Texas.

While Musk said earlier this year those tests could begin in the first half of 2019, Shotwell suggested recently that date had slipped. “I think we’ll be hopping that second stage next year, late next year,” she said during a panel at DARPA’s D60 conference Sept. 6 near Washington.

Shotwell, speaking at the World Satellite Business Week conference here Sept. 11, didn’t discuss lunar missions but did emphasize the importance of human spaceflight to the company’s long-term ambitions. “I do think ultimately — and I’m not going to talk about timelines — but I do think that will probably be the majority of our business in the future, flying people,” she said.

An illustration posted with the tweet about the lunar mission announcement appeared to show minor changes to the BFR spaceship design since Musk’s last major speech about it last September at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Australia. Those changes include larger tail fins and seven engines in its base, versus six. Musk, ased on Twitter if the illustration represented the current design of the BFR, responded simply with “Yes.”

Musk introduced the BFR concept at the 2016 IAC in Mexico as a key part of the company’s plans to send humans to Mars and establish a permanent settlement there. In the Australia speech last year, he also showed that the BFR could land on the moon. Musk is not currently scheduled to speak at the next IAC, taking place in early October in Bremen, Germany.

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...