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Japanese billionaire ends private ‘dearMoon’ lunar spacecraft mission

The Japanese billionaire who tasked SpaceX with a private mission around the Moon aboard a Starship rocket has abruptly canceled the project, citing lingering uncertainties about when the launcher will be ready to fly.

“I signed the contract in 2018 with the assumption that dearMoon would launch by the end of 2023,” Yusaku Maezawa, the project’s backer, told development, so that’s what it is, but it’s still unclear when Starship will be able to launch.

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

Maezawa announced the eight people who 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 this point, the publicly announced schedule on the dearMoon website still adhered to the 2023 schedule; but four years after the project was announced, it became very apparent that the target launch date was unachievable, given that Starship had yet to complete a single orbital test flight. The project was delayed indefinitely last November.

The cancellation appears to have come as a surprise to at least some crew members. “If I had known this could have ended within a year and a half of it being publicly announced, I never would have agreed to this,” Dodd said. “We had no prior knowledge of this possibility. I expressed my opinion, even before the announcement, that DearMoon was unlikely to happen in the next few years.

Irish photographer Rhiannon Adam, also selected for the mission, was more trenchant: “As someone with a critical brain, a lot of this doesn’t make sense, especially when it comes to chronology. I never believed we were going to 2023 or 2024,” she said.

News reports at the time suggested that SpaceX was pursuing space tourism as a way to finance the development of this massive and extremely complex rocket. Although neither SpaceX nor Maezawa have ever disclosed the likely sizable amount of the down payment for the flight, Musk said at an event announcing the mission that it was a “non-trivial amount that will have a material impact” on rocket development costs.

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

The company also won a historic contract with NASA to use a version of Starship as a lunar lander for the agency’s Artemis program, which undoubtedly significantly shifted SpaceX’s priorities. Space tourism has had to take a back seat to the interests of its biggest client.

SpaceX’s valuation has continued to climb and investors’ appetite for SpaceX stock seems almost insatiable. At the end of 2018, the company was valued at $30.5 billion; last month it was reportedly considering a takeover bid that could value the company at around $200 billion. Meanwhile, space research and news agency Payload Research estimated that SpaceX would likely have doubled its revenue in 2023 from the previous year, to $8.7 billion.

It seems that Maezawa’s fortunes have also changed. According to Forbes, his net worth now stands at $1.4 billion, barely half of what it was when DearMoon was announced. Maezawa also scratched his space itch in 2021, when he flew aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule on a 12-day trip to the International Space Station with the private spaceflight company Space Adventures.

techcrunch

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