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MOONHUNT

Who are the space tourists Elon Musk will send around the moon?

By Tim Fernholz

SpaceX’s ambitious mission around the moon and back again has raised important questions about technical feasibility and the company’s relationship with NASA. But the biggest mystery is, who are the two tourists who ponied up a “significant deposit” on a trip to deep space that will cost more than $100 million?

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wouldn’t say yesterday, only confirming that the two clients knew each other, they aren’t pilots, and they can obviously afford the expense. He refused to share other details about their identities, saying the company promised to keep them quiet for the time being. But the company did say that “other flight teams” are interested in the trip, with Musk speculating the company could do one or two flights a year.

The proposed trip—a trip around the moon for two passengers lasting about a week—is almost the same as a scheme hatched by the tourism company Space Adventures, whose president told Quartz last year it had two clients booked for the mission.

Could they be the travel agents who brought SpaceX their newest clients?

“Space Adventures has been very supportive of SpaceX since the company’s inception,” company spokesperson Stacey Tearne told Quartz in an e-mail when asked about the firm’s involvement. “It is not our practice to comment on our any [sic] particular Space Adventures’ client’s prospective or planned mission before the client has announced it personally, regardless of vehicle, destination, or mission timeframe.” SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment on Space Adventures’ involvement by publication time.

Space Adventures has brokered eight trips to the International Space Station on Russian rockets for a number of wealthy space enthusiasts—for $20 to $30 million a pop. The “space flight participants” included Anouseh Ansari, the Iranian-American entrepreneur who recently accepted an Oscar on behalf of documentary filmmaker Ashgar Farhadi; Guy Laliberte, the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil; and, twice, Charles Simonyi, a Microsoft executive.

These trips, however, petered out in 2009, as the company found it more difficult to secure space on Russian trips to the International Space Center, in part because the retirement of the US space shuttle means there is only one type of spacecraft available to carry astronauts to the station.

In April 2016, Space Adventures’ president, Tom Shelley, told Quartz in detail about a moon mission, also using Russian rockets but not involving the International Space Station, that the company had been contracted to design on behalf of two clients. It involved launching the two clients and a professional cosmonaut, docking with an additional habitation module, and going around the moon. The goal was to fly before the end of the decade.

Asked if newer commercial companies like SpaceX presented an easier path to space than the global space bureaucracy that runs ISS, Shelley sounded bullish.

“It could be in the future; SpaceX needs to fly people first,” he said at the time. “As much respect as everybody has for what they have achieved, they haven’t yet flown people… We’ll see what happens when they are successfully able to fly people.”

The mission under discussion, if it goes off on schedule, would follow a successful manned flight by SpaceX on behalf of NASA, proving that the Dragon 2 spacecraft meets the space agency’s standards for human flight. It’s not clear, however, whether the Falcon Heavy rocket SpaceX says it will fly will have met those standards, though Musk noted that the rocket was essentially three of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets, which should be certified to carry human passengers by NASA, strapped together.

While the list isn’t long, there are more than a few wealthy people with dreams of space adventure. Many of them have founded their own companies toward this end, including Musk; his rival at Blue Origin, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; Virgin Galactic honcho Richard Branson; Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen; and former InfoSpace founder Naveen Jain, whose company MoonExpress aims to launch an unmanned lunar probe this year.

It’s possible that the candidates are on the list of some 700 people who have plopped down $250,000 deposits to fly on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spacecraft when it is ready. It includes a number of potential celebrity duos: Tyler and Cameron Winkelvoss, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, and—we can probably rule this one out now—Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Singers Lance Bass and Sarah Brightman separately underwent training to visit ISS before their missions wound up being cancelled.

Sometimes, space flight participants aren’t enormously wealthy but get lucky: The first Malaysian astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, was a physician who won his trip after Russia threw it in as an extra when Malaysia purchased billions of dollars of Russian fighter jets in 2003.

Now, though, all eyes will be watching for wealthy duos visiting SpaceX’s campuses across the country.

Tim Fernholz
Reporter
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