Elon Musk, chief executive officer for Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX). (Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg)

Musk Names Japanese Billionaire for ‘Dangerous Mission’ to Moon

(Bloomberg) -- Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will hitch the first SpaceX ride around the moon and plans to invite as many as eight artists to join him -- with the rocket company’s founder Elon Musk possibly signing up for the space flight.

Maezawa will fly on Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s BFR rocket on the trip in 2023, Musk announced Monday. SpaceX expects Maezawa, 42, to be the first private passenger to make the journey that only two dozen astronauts have been on during the Apollo era that ended 46 years ago.

Musk Names Japanese Billionaire for ‘Dangerous Mission’ to Moon

“He is, I think, the bravest person and most willing to do so,” Musk said, referring to Maezawa. Calling it a “dangerous mission” and “not a walk in the park,” he said SpaceX will complete several test flights before putting humans on the rocket.

Musk, a master showman, is adept at inspiring a massive audience of followers for his pursuit of electric cars and other clean-energy endeavors critical to combating global warming. Sixteen successful missions for SpaceX this year is a bright spot in an otherwise tumultuous few months for Musk, who is also chairman and chief executive officer of electric-car maker Tesla Inc.

Maezawa, whose net worth is $2.3 billion, is the founder and CEO of Japan’s second-largest e-commerce company Start Today Co. The company has grown from its origins as a mail-order music album business, and now makes most of its money through its shopping website Zozotown, which is popular with younger domestic consumers.

Shares of Start Today fell 2.4 percent in Tokyo on Tuesday after the announcement.

With SpaceX, Musk has described his mission as nothing short of making humans a multi-planetary species. He wouldn’t disclose the price Maezawa is paying for the ride, but did say that the billionaire is funding “a material percentage” of the BFR system’s estimated $5 billion development cost.

Maezawa said the accompanying artists, including painters, photographers, musicians, film directors, fashion designers and architects, “will inspire the dreamer within all of us.” “I choose to go to the moon, with artists,” he said, adding he would ask them to create works sparked by the the trip upon their return. He’s dubbed it the "Dear Moon" project.

‘Don’t Say No’

"By the way, if you should hear from me please say yes and accept my invitation," he said. "Please don’t say no."

Near the end of the 70-minute presentation, Maezawa also offered a seat on the vehicle to Musk, who wants to extend humanity throughout the solar system but has been rather circumspect on his own personal spaceflight inclinations. “As far as me going, I’m not sure,” Musk said. “Maybe we’ll both be on it.”

Musk, 47, made it clear before the private passenger event that crewed spaceflight for NASA remains SpaceX’s top priority. He sent out a series of tweets of appreciation for the agency, including one in response to Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

Boeing Co. and SpaceX have contracts with NASA to fly the agency’s astronauts to the International Space Station as part of what’s known as the Commercial Crew Program. The agency sent 24 astronauts to the moon during the Apollo era, with the last of these missions taking place in 1972.

After an uncrewed demonstration flight this fall and an in-flight abort test, U.S. Air Force Colonel Bob Behnken and former Marine Corps test pilot Doug Hurley will be the first two astronauts to fly in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. The craft designed to ferry humans safely to and from the orbiting lab will take off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in 2019.

Musk has put NASA and the Air Force -- which collaborates with the space agency in myriad ways -- in the awkward position of having to respond to controversial conduct recently. The U.S. military branch last week downplayed media reports that it was looking into Musk’s marijuana use on a livestreamed podcast earlier this month, saying they were inaccurate and that it was determining the facts.

SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said last week that there was “no chance” that Musk’s conduct will impact SpaceX’s ability to win contracts, and that there’s been “no impact at all” on the level of confidence in him on the part of the closely held company’s backers.

Maezawa was one of the two people who had paid a deposit to become the first to fly around the moon, Musk said Monday, noting that SpaceX’s ambitious exploration plans required the company “to seek every possible means for funding” the development of BFR. He didn’t discuss the other person.

Stepped Forward

Maezawa approached SpaceX with his idea for the trip and the desire to invite artists whom he respected. “He stepped forward to do it,” Musk said. “To be clear, we’re honored that he would choose us. This is not us choosing him.”

The e-commerce entrepreneur has long stood out in the Japanese corporate world. In a place where company executives maintain low-key lifestyles and keep out of the spotlight, Maezawa is active on social media, sharing snippets from lavish meals or vacations, and is a regular name in entertainment publications. He made a splash in the art world in 2017, when he spent $110.5 million on a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting at a Sotheby’s auction, setting a record for an American artist’s work at the time.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the moon,” said Maezawa, who was a drummer in a rock band and had spent six months in southern California as a teenager. “That’s why I could not pass up the opportunity to see the moon up close.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.