Starship: a former astronaut will become the first space tourist on Elon Musk’s rocket

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — The world’s first space tourist wants to go back – but this time he’s signed up for a moon tour aboard Elon Musk’s spacecraft.

For 82-year-old Dennis Tito, it’s a chance to relive the joy of his journey to the International Space Station, now that he’s retired with some free time. He’s not interested in jumping on a 10-minute flight to the edge of space or repeating what he did 21 years ago. “I went there, I did it.”

His week-long moonshot – his date to be determined and years in the future – will bring him within 125 miles (200 kilometers) of the far side of the moon. He’ll have company: his wife, Akiko, and 10 other people willing to shell out big bucks for the ride.

Tito will not say how much he pays; his flight to the Russian station cost $20 million.

The couple acknowledge that there is still a lot of testing and development to be done for Starship, a shiny bullet-shaped monster that hasn’t even attempted to reach space yet.

“We need to stay healthy for as many years as it takes SpaceX to complete this vehicle,” Tito said in an interview this week with The Associated Press. “I might be sitting in a rocking chair, not getting any good exercise, if it wasn’t for this mission.”

Tito is actually the second billionaire to make a Starship reservation for a flight around the moon. Japanese fashion mogul Yusaku Maezawa announced in 2018 that he was buying an entire flight so he could take around eight other people with him, preferably artists. The two men both flew to the space station, from Kazakhstan atop Russian rockets, 20 years apart.

Tito pioneered space tourism in 2001, becoming the first person to pay their own way to space and antagonize NASA in the process. The US space agency didn’t want a tourist hanging around while the station was being built. But the Russian Space Agency needed the money and, with the help of the American company Space Adventures, launched a series of wealthy customers to the station in the 2000s and, just a year ago, Maezawa.

Well-heeled customers get a taste of briefer flavors of space with Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic plans to take fare-paying passengers next year.

Starship has yet to be launched atop a Super Heavy booster from the southern tip of Texas near the Mexican border. At 394 feet (120 meters) and 17 million pounds (7.7 million kilograms) of liftoff thrust, it is the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. NASA has already contracted a spacecraft to land its astronauts on the moon around 2025, in the first lunar landing since Apollo.

Tito said the couple’s contract with SpaceX, signed in August 2021, includes an option for a flight within five years. Tito would be 87 by then and he wanted an outing in case his health failed.

“But if I stayed healthy, I would wait 10 years,” he said.

Tito’s wife, 57, said she needed no persuasion. Los Angeles residents are both pilots and understand the risks. They share Musk’s vision of a space future and believe that a married couple flying together to the moon will inspire others to do the same.

Tito, who sold his investment firm Wilshire Associates nearly two years ago, said he doesn’t feel guilty about splurging on spaceflight rather than spending the money here on Earth.

“We are retired and now is the time to reap the rewards of all the hard work,” he said.

Tito expects it to also shatter preconceived notions about age, just like John Glenn’s space shuttle flight did in 1998. The first American to orbit Earth still holds the record of the oldest person in orbit.

“He was only 77. He was just a young man,” Tito said. “I could end up being 10 years older than him.”

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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