Japanese Entrepreneur Will Be Passenger on SpaceX’s 1st Tourist Trip Around the Moon, and He Wants Artists to Join Him

Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, who made billions in online retail, will be the passenger on Hawthorne-based SpaceX's first lunar tourism mission, the company announced Monday.

The Zozotown founder and former rock band drummer said during a press conference that he plans to invite six to eight artists along for the 240,000-mile trip, and each will be tasked with creating a work for his project, #dearMoon.

Wearing a shirt with an image by the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Maezawa explained the idea came to him as he was staring at one of the artist's paintings that he famously purchased for $110.5 million at auction last year.

Maezawa said he thought, "What if Basquiat had gone to space? What wonderful masterpiece would he have created?"

"Just thinking about it now gets my heart racing," he added.

SpaceX — led by another billionaire, Elon Musk — announced it had reached an agreement to launch a tourist into space last Friday via Twitter.

"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 said in a tweet.

The trip will last four or five days and be free for the artists, Musk said. Neither he nor Maezawa would reveal how much Maezawa's ticket cost.

"He puts his money where his mouth is," Musk said, describing the amount as "non-trivial."

Maezawa, whose net worth is estimated at $2.9 billion by Forbes, plans to work with the SpaceX team to select his fellow passengers.

Maezawa said he would first reach out to artists he loves, but did not drop hints as to who he hoped would be aboard. He did say he envisions an interdisciplinary group, drawing on painters, photographers, musicians, fashion designers, filmmakers, architects, dancers and beyond.

The Japanese tycoon said, as excited as he is to potentially become the first private passenger to travel to outer space, he wants the experience to have a broader impact.

"I thought about how I can give back to the world and how this can contribute to world peace," he said. "These masterpieces will inspire the dreamer within all of us."

"If you hear from me, please say yes," Maezawa added, also encouraging Musk to join the mission.

"As far as me going, I'm not sure," Musk responded. "Maybe we'll both be on it."

Ambitious time frame

The company is aiming for the trip to launch as early as 2023, but the rocket being used is still in development.

Maezawa will fly on the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, a new spaceship system that SpaceX is building. It consists of a massive rocket booster that promises to out-power any that has ever been built and a towering spacecraft, nicknamed BFS for Big Falcon Spaceship, that will vault out of the Earth's atmosphere.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said at a conference outside Washington earlier Monday that she hoped the spaceship would be making short test flights next year.

Shotwell also said the full rocket could reach orbit for the first time in 2020 and possibly deliver cargo to the Moon or Mars in 2022.

"I know that sounds crazy, and we don't usually meet our time lines, but I wanted you to know at least order of magnitude, that's what we're thinking," Shotwell said. "And it sounds crazy but everything we've ever done has sounded crazy to people, both people that love us and people that don't like us so much."

Musk cautioned at the news conference that SpaceX is not certain about the 2023 timing for the moon tourism mission.

He said SpaceX has updated the design for the BFR rocket for the third time in three years. He showed off images of the hardware under construction and a test fire of the vehicle's massive Raptor engine.

The latest blueprints mark the final major redesign of the rocket, whose development is expected to cost roughly $5 billion, according to Musk.

Asked why the company made further changes, Musk said he "did not like the aesthetics" of the previous version. The new design, he added, "might be better," but "it's slightly riskier technically."

Space station mission next year

SpaceX has launched more than 60 missions to deliver cargo or satellites into orbit over the past eight years — all of them without humans on board.

The tourism announcement comes as the company is racing to meet a tight deadline to start flying astronauts to and from the International Space Station aboard its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The United States hasn't had the ability to put humans in orbit since the Space Shuttle era ended in 2011. Since then, NASA has relied on Russia to ferry astronauts to the space station.

Shotwell said Monday that SpaceX is planning to conduct a test flight of a version of the Dragon capsule that can carry astronauts before the end of the year. It aims to launch its first crewed mission to the space station in the second quarter of 2019.

When will 'everyday people' get to visit space?

SpaceX has not talked much about putting private citizens in space since February 2017. That's when the company announced it would send two paying customers on a trip around the Moon in 2018aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket, which became the most powerful operational rocket in the world after its maiden voyage earlier this year.

Musk later reversed course, saying the company no longer has plans to certify the Falcon Heavy for human spaceflight.

SpaceX has said it views space tourism as "an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of traveling to space."

Two of Musk's fellow billionaires — Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Virgin Group's Richard Branson — also want to make a business out of space tourism.

Their ventures plan to conduct short suborbital trips during which passengers can briefly experience weightlessness and an expansive view of Earth.

But it's not clear when space tourism might become available for "everyday people."

Branson's Virgin Galactic has sold tickets for about $250,000, which is more than the median home price in the United States. Bezos' Blue Origin has been tight-lipped about the price of its tickets, but Reuters reported in July that they could cost in the $200,000 range. Blue Origin denied the report to CNN, saying ticket prices had not yet been set.