Here’s why a Japanese billionaire just canceled his lunar flight on Starship

Elon Musk speaks as Yusaku Maezawa, founder and chairman of Start Today Co., attends an event at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, in 2018.
Enlarge / Elon Musk speaks as Yusaku Maezawa, founder and chairman of Start Today Co., attends an event at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, in 2018.

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On Friday evening, Project dearMoon – a plan to launch a Japanese billionaire and 10 other “crew members” on a circumlunar flight aboard SpaceX’s Starship vehicle – was abruptly canceled.

“It is regrettable to announce that ‘dearMoon,’ the first private circumlunar flight project, will be canceled,” said the mission’s official account on the social media site X. “We thank everyone who supported us and We apologize to those who were looking forward to this project.”

Shortly afterward, the project’s backer and its “team leader,” Yusaku Maezawa, explained that decision on that the dearMoon mission would be launched by the end of 2023.

“It’s a development project, so that’s what it is, but it’s still unclear when Starship will be able to launch,” he wrote. “I cannot plan for my future in this situation, and I feel bad for making crew members wait any longer, hence the difficult decision to cancel at this point. I apologize to those who were excited about the completion of this project.”

The mission was to be the first Starship manned spaceflight to launch from Earth, circle the Moon, and return. Now that doesn’t happen. Why did this happen and what does it mean?

Origins of the mission

Maezawa and Musk made the announcement, side by side, at the SpaceX rocket factory in Hawthorne in September 2018. It was a strange but important moment. It seemed significant that SpaceX signed its first commercial contract for the massive Starship rocket. And although the value was not disclosed, Maezawa was injecting something on the order of a few hundred million dollars into the program.

Maezawa, however, has always been a bit unserious. He said he would hold a competition to fill 10 other seats on the vehicle. “I didn’t want to have such a fantastic experience alone,” he said. “I’ll be a little lonely.” Later, he selected a team of creatives.

But initially, Maezawa took the project seriously. When I watched the very first Starship hop test in July 2019, there were only a handful of visitors present to witness “Starhopper’s” brief flight. One of them was a representative from Maezawa who was closely monitoring Starship’s progress.

As major space projects do – and to no one’s surprise – Starship fell behind schedule in its development. The first test flight didn’t take place until April 2023, and that was just the beginning. The dearMoon mission comes at the very end of a long series of tests that the vehicle must complete: safe launch, controlled flight in space, safe landing of the Starship upper stage, refueling in space, habitability in space and much more.

With Starship’s fourth test flight planned in just a few days, starting June 5, SpaceX has so far demonstrated its ability to launch Starship safely. This is therefore only the beginning of a difficult technical journey.

A turning point

One of the largest impacts of the dearMoon project occurred in April 2021, when NASA selected the Starship vehicle as the lunar lander for its Artemis program. That put the large vehicle on the critical path of NASA’s ambitious program to land humans on the surface of the Moon. He also offered an order of magnitude more funding, $2.9 billion, and the promise of more if SpaceX could provide a vehicle to take humans to the surface of the Moon from lunar orbit , and back.

Since then, SpaceX has had two clear priorities for its Starship program. The first is to become operational and start deploying larger Starlink satellites. And the second is to use these flights to test technologies needed for NASA’s Artemis program, such as propellant storage and refueling in space.

As a result, other aspects of the program, including dearMoon, were decommissioned. In recent months, it has become clear that if Maezawa’s mission took place, it would not take place until at least the early 2030s, at least a decade after the original plan.

Change of fortune

In the meantime, Maezawa’s priorities have likely changed. According to Forbes, when the plan was announced in 2018, the entrepreneur had a net worth of around $3 billion. Today, it is estimated to be worth only half that amount. Additionally, he wanted to go into space in 2021, flying aboard a Russian Soyuz vehicle for a 12-day journey to the International Space Station.

Everything has been written about Maezawa for a while now, ever since SpaceX founder Elon Musk unfollowed the Japanese entrepreneur on X earlier this year. (This is a sure sign of his disfavor. Musk twice unfollowed me on Twitter/X after stories or interactions he didn’t like.) It’s likely that the combination of developmental delays and Maezawa’s personal fortune led the parties to dissolve the project.

All of this leaves a clearer path for Starship: to become operational, begin flying Starlink satellites, and begin tackling the technical challenges for Artemis. Then, in several years, the company will turn its attention to the difficult prospect of launching humans inside Starship from Earth and then returning to the planet. The first of these people will be another billionaire, Jared Isaacman, who has already flown on Crew Dragon and is planning at least two more such flights before the pioneering Starship mission.

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