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Japanese billionaire pulls plug on private ‘dearMoon’ lunar Starship mission

The Japanese billionaire who commissioned SpaceX for a private mission around the moon on a Starship rocket has abruptly canceled the project, citing ongoing uncertainties around when the launch vehicle will be ready to fly. 

“I signed the contract in 2018 based on the assumption that dearMoon would launch by the end of 2023,” Yusaku Maezawa, the backer of the project, said on X. “It’s a developmental project so it is what it is, but it is still uncertain as to when Starship can launch.” 

The dearMoon mission was first announced in 2018 — back when Starship was known as Big Falcon Rocket — and it was set to be the first Starship launch to fly humans around the moon and back. At that time, the two parties said they were targeting as early as 2023 for the 240,000-mile journey. 

Maezawa announced the eight people that would accompany him on the mission in late 2022, with the crew including Everyday Astronaut’s Tim Dodd, South Korean idol TOP and music producer Steve Aoki. At that point, the publicly stated schedule on the dearMoon website still held to the 2023 timeline; but four years on from the project’s announcement, it was becoming very obvious that the target launch date was infeasible, given that Starship had as of that time not yet performed even a single orbital test flight. The project was delayed indefinitely last November.  

The cancellation seems to have come as a surprise to at least some of the crew members. “Had I known this could have ended within a year and a half of it being publicly announced, I would’ve never agreed to it,” Dodd said. “We had no prior knowledge of this possibility. I voiced my opinions, even before the announcement, that it was improbable for dearMoon to happen in the next few years.” 

Irish photographer Rhiannon Adam, also selected for the mission, was more cutting: ““As someone with a critical brain, much of this doesn’t make sense, particularly with regard to timeline. I never believed we were going in 2023, or 2024,” she said. 

Reporting at the time suggested that SpaceX was pursuing space tourism as a way to fund the development of the massive, hugely complex rocket. While neither SpaceX nor Maezawa have ever disclosed the likely considerable down payment amount for the flight, Musk said during an event announcing the mission that it was “a non-trivial amount that will have a material impact” on the rocket’s development costs. 

But SpaceX’s business has considerably changed since 2018: since that point, the company has hit a number of impressive milestones, including certifying and flying its crewed Dragon spacecraft for astronauts, bringing its Starlink satellite internet constellation online, and upping the Falcon rocket launch cadence to nearly 100 per year in 2023. (The company is on track to beat its own record this year.) 

The company also scored a landmark contract from NASA to use a version of Starship as a lunar lander for the agency’s Artemis program, and this no doubt considerably shifted SpaceX’s priorities moving forward. Space tourism had to take a backseat to the interests of their largest single customer. 

SpaceX’s valuation has steadily climbed, and investor appetite for SpaceX stock seems nearly insatiable. At the end of 2018, the company was valued at $30.5 billion; as of last month, it was reportedly considering a tender offer that could value the company at roughly $200 billion. Meanwhile, space research and news organization Payload Research estimated that SpaceX likely doubled its revenue in 2023 versus the previous year to $8.7 billion.

It seems that Maezawa’s fortune has shifted as well. According to Forbes, his net worth is now $1.4 billion, which is just half as much as it was when dearMoon was announced. Maezawa also scratched his space itch in 2021, when he flew in a Russian Soyuz capsule on a 12-day trip to the International Space Station with the private spaceflight company Space Adventures.

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