SpaceX's trip around the moon could be the greatest private voyage in history

SpaceX's trip around the moon could be the greatest private voyage in history
© NASA

The moment that Yasaku Maezawa bounded into view during the SpaceX-sponsored press conference, the world knew that a different kind of space traveler had appeared. “I can now say it,” Maezawa proclaimed with enthusiasm. “I choose to go to the moon!”

SpaceX has developed a new spacecraft, called the BFR or Big Falcon Rocket. The BFR is the center of the company’s CEO Elon Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars. The spacecraft comes in two stages, both reusable, and the upper stage is roomy enough to take 100 people at a time to destinations like the moon and Mars.

The flight that Maezawa will make is a little less ambitious. He will fly on board the Big Falcon Rocket on a trip around the moon, a voyage of about five days to a week. He also proposes to take six to eight artists with him. Besides selling clothing through an online store, Maezawa is an avid art collector.

A painter, a sculptor, a musician, a writer, and other kinds of creative people will fly around the moon, take in the experience, and then create works of art once they have returned safely to the Earth. Space travel has certainly changed since military pilots and scientists who have braved the airless void to go to the moon and back, decades ago. Maezawa has called his enterprise Dear Moon.

People who have flown in space have already used their experience to create great art. Apollo moonwalker Alan Bean made a second career painting scenes from the moon landings. Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov also painted images from space voyages.

The idea of taking non-astronauts into space is not a new one. NASA once had a program to take a variety of such people on the space shuttle, including a journalist, an artist, and, of course, a teacher. However, the destruction of the Challenger and the death of Christa McAuliffe put a quick end to that idea.

A voyage around the moon with paying customers is also not new. Space Adventures proposed such a mission using Russian hardware. SpaceX itself had an idea to launch two people in a Dragon capsule on top of a Falcon Heavy. Maezawa was to be one of the passengers on that voyage.

On the one hand, the skeptical journalist has to ask a number of questions. Musk suggests that the development time for the BFR to get it ready for a lunar voyage will take five years and $5 billion. Given SpaceX’s track record and the fact that rocket science is a synonym for something really hard, the process from hop tests to the voyage around the moon will likely take longer and cost more. Also, will Maezawa find six to eight artists willing to risk their lives for the voyage of a lifetime?

On the other hand, the idea of a flight around the moon to create great art is something that is so compelling, so wonderful, that expressing skepticism seems to be positively churlish. What Maezawa and Musk propose may be difficult but it is not impossible. And if the project costs $10 billion and lasts until 2026, what does it matter?

In the short term, Musk has achieved a public relations coup. For a while, at least, the media will not be talking so much about Tesla’s woes, Musk’s alarming behavior on Twitter, or even the defamation suit. They will talk about the moon voyage, whether Musk can pull it off, and what it means for the future.

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If (maybe when) the BFR is flying, SpaceX will have achieved a quantum leap in deep space flight. Instead of spending billions of dollars to fly to the moon in a capsule, the current NASA plan, people will fly into deep space in relative comfort for far less money, at least in theory. The moon, Mars and beyond will be opened up for human settlement and commercial development. The current century, so far a time of conflict and acrimony, will finally become an epoch of history-changing high adventure beyond the Earth, just as the world was promised so many years ago.

But does Maezawa have room for an embedded journalist? Someone has to tell the story of the greatest private voyage in history to the world in real time. 

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”