Quirks & Quarks·Analysis

First private trip to the moon could be a tremendous boost or bust for space tourism

Plan for new SpaceX rocket to take billionaire and his guests to lunar orbit is a risky proposition

Plan for new SpaceX rocket to take billionaire and his guests to lunar orbit is a risky proposition

Test flights of the SpaceX Starship rocket have been successful. Landings less so. (SpaceX via The Associated Press)

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa's latest plan for a lunar orbital flight is an open-to-the-public contest for berths for eight people in 2023 aboard a new SpaceX rocket. If successful, the pioneering flight could push private spaceflight forward by decades. A failure could keep private citizens firmly on the ground.

Maezawa announced the contest this week on his dearMoon website. According to the announcement, anyone can apply to become a member of what could be the first commercial flight around the moon and first return to the moon by humans since the last Apollo mission in 1972.

This is the latest incarnation of Maezawa's mission. He'd previously planned for this mission to be for a handful of artists (as well as a potential romantic partner), but he's paying SpaceX for the tickets, so he can clearly distribute them as he sees fit.  The price he's paying SpaceX for the flight hasn't been disclosed, but he claims it is in excess of $110 million.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, right, purchased a flight to the moon from SpaceX in 2018. His new plan for recruiting companions is to run a contest that is open to the public. The flight is tentatively scheduled for 2023. (The Associated Press/Chris Carlson)

The challenges facing this mission are considerable, but so are the potential rewards. First of all, the under-development Starship rocket that is presumably the vehicle for the mission will be the largest passenger ship ever flown in space -- if it can get there. So far, prototypes have only managed test flights up to ten kilometres, well short of space, and the landings have been explosively unsuccessful

Aiming for the moon with a new spacecraft on a short timeline harkens back to 1968 when NASA was trying to beat the Soviet Union to the moon before the end of the decade. With the deadline rapidly approaching, and support for the expensive program waning, NASA took the bold move to change its plan for the first manned flight of its giant new Saturn V rocket from a mission in low-Earth orbit to a flight all the way to the moon and back. 

It was a risky venture because the mission would not carry a lunar lander that could be used as a lifeboat in case something went wrong. That risk became a reality during the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, when only desperate measures allowed the crew to survive a significant malfunction.

The historic flight of Apollo 8, which orbited the moon but didn't land, is considered by some to be the most daring because it was the first time humans left Earth and travelled to another heavenly body. It was also the first time humanity got to see itself as a small blue marble hanging in a black sky above the lunar horizon. 

But the Apollo gamble paid off. That new perspective on ourselves and the success of Apollo 8 galvanized the space program and led to the successful first landing on the moon just seven months later. Had that mission failed and those men died, the tragedy might have threatened the whole lunar program, at the very least pushing back the landing by years.

This December 1968 file photo provided by NASA shows Earth as seen from the Apollo 8 spacecraft. (AP Photo/NASA, File)

SpaceX's Starship is an innovative new design that has not been proven in space. In addition to carrying more people than any previous spaceship — 10 to 12 passengers for a moon mission — it also would return to Earth, unlike any previous mission. 

Rather than parachuting into the ocean, as space capsules do, or gliding to a smooth landing on a runway, as space shuttles did, Starship literally falls from the sky like a giant log on it's side, firing it's rocket engines at the last moment to turn itself on end and land standing up on its tail. As mentioned earlier, this is proving very difficult to accomplish. This is the method SpaceX perfected with its Falcon first-stage boosters, but it has yet to work for an entire spacecraft.

A successful tourist flight to the moon would be a tremendous boost to space tourism and the commercial space industry. It would place SpaceX at the forefront of passenger travel to the moon. And of course, SpaceX founder Elon Musk famously has his sights set on Mars. 

On the other hand, an accident with the loss of up to a dozen lives would be a catastrophe the whole world would take notice of. It would certainly force a serious evaluation of the whole concept of space tourism. 

Proving that the new rocket is capable and safe, then flying private citizens to the moon and back makes the dearMoon project a high-risk/high-reward endeavour. Elon Musk has won gambles like this before with his Falcon 9 rocket, Falcon Heavy, Dragon Crew capsule and Tesla electric vehicles. Will he succeed again with this new space adventure?

If you are the type of person who likes risky adventures, and are looking for a free ride to the moon, go for it. You could become part of history, one way or another. 


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.