SpaceX Sells Another Starship Circumlunar Mission, This One to Dennis Tito

SpaceX Sells Another Starship Circumlunar Mission, This One to Dennis Tito

Dennis Tito, the first “space tourist” to visit the International Space Station, and his wife have purchased seats on SpaceX’s second circumlunar crewed Starship flight. Unlike the first two commercial crewed Starship missions, this time they are purchasing just two seats, not all of them. SpaceX says it ushers in an era of airline-like operations where people purchase only the number of seats they want. When they will launch and how much they paid were not disclosed.

Tito, an 82-year-old American billionaire, and his Japanese-born wife, Akiko Tito, said at a SpaceX media briefing today that they were on a tour of SpaceX last year when someone asked if he would like to fly to space again. His first trip was in 2001 on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a week aboard the ISS. Thinking about it on the spot, he replied he’d like to go to the Moon and looked over at his wife. “We had a little eye contact and she goes, yeah, me too.”

Tito made headlines with his 2001 trip to ISS. The Russians had experience with commercial human spaceflight already having flown Japanese journalist Toyohiro Akiyama and U.K. chemist Helen Sharman to the Mir space station in 1990 and 1991. By the end of that decade, they were trying to further commercialize Mir through MirCorp. Tito actually was training to fly to Mir, but it was just at the time Russia decided to put all its efforts into the nascent ISS and deorbited Mir.

Tito said today he wasn’t sure if he would ever fly, but the Russians offered to send him to ISS instead. The United States was opposed to non-professional astronauts on ISS in those days, but Russia insisted. Eventually the two reached an accommodation and Tito became the first of eight tourists to fly between 2001 and 2009. The prices were never officially disclosed, but rumored to be in the $20-25 million range.

A decade later, Tito raised eyebrows again by promoting the idea of sending a married couple on a free-return trajectory around Mars in 2018 when the relative positions of Mars and Earth were favorable for a relatively short trip of 501 days. Initially funding for this Inspiration Mars mission was supposed to come from Tito himself, founder of the investment management company Wilshire Associates, philantropists, and other non-government sources. He created the Inspiration Mars Foundation, but soon conceded NASA money would be needed. NASA was not supportive.

Another decade has passed and he is back in the news. This time he, his wife, and 10 other yet-to-be-named passengers will make a one-week trip around the Moon on SpaceX’s Starship at some point in the future. No one knows when that will be.

SpaceX’s two-stage Starship space transportation system stacked for the first time, August 6, 2021, Boca Chica, TX. The silver first stage is called Super Heavy, and the second stage, covered in black thermal protection tiles, is Starship, a name also used to refer to the two of them together. Only the second stage has been tested so far, succeeding on the fifth try. Credit: SpaceX

Starship has not flown at all yet. SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk hopes to make the first orbital flight this year. He repeatedly says he will not put people aboard until it has been thoroughly tested through cargo flights such as those to launch his second generation Starlink system of thousands of communications satellites.

Two other crewed flights are in the queue ahead of Tito.

In February, American billionaire Jared Isaacman purchased the first Starship mission that will carry passengers to Earth orbit. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa bought the first circumlunar flight several years ago. (Maezawa decided to try out earth orbit first and flew to the ISS on a Soyuz last year.)

Tito said today he expects Starship will have more flights under its belt by the time of his mission than Russia’s workhorse Soyuz rocket did for his flight to ISS. Soyuz has been in service since the mid-1960s.

He also said he doesn’t feel a need to have anyone on board with any more spaceflight experience than his own. He and his wife not only are investors, but pilots and engineers. He began his career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a trajectory design engineer for one of the earliest Mars probes, Mariner 4, before switching into the finance industry. She told reporters today she is a systems engineer and economist. Born in Japan, she moved to New York City in 1985 and worked on Wall Street while raising her daughter. She added that four years ago she became a pilot and now is a jet-rated commercial pilot and with over 200 hours of solo flight time.

SpaceX is planning at least two Starship launch sites, Starbase in Boca Chica, TX and Launch Complex-39A in Cape Canaveral, FL, and multiple landing sites, so SpaceX could not even say where Tito’s flight will launch from or land.

SpaceX photo of Starbase in Boca Chica, TX, with Starship/Super Heavy on the launch pad.

After launch, they will stop in earth orbit to refuel then spend about six days traveling out around the Moon and back. They will not enter lunar orbit. The total trip duration will be about seven days.

Refueling in earth orbit is a requirement for Starship. Unlike NASA’s Space Launch System, it cannot fly directly to the Moon. No fuel depots exist in orbit yet nor has anyone tried transferring cryogenic propellants from one spacecraft to another in weightlessness, so there is a lot of work to do.

These commercial circumlunar missions are separate from SpaceX’s contract with NASA for Human Landing Systems (HLS) to support the Artemis program to put astronauts back on the Moon. For Artemis, astronauts will travel to lunar orbit on an SLS rocket in an Orion capsule. Once there, Orion will dock with a Starship HLS already waiting there to take astronauts down to the surface and back up to orbit. They return to Orion for the trip home. For the commercial flights, the passengers are on Starship throughout the journey.

Tito made clear a lunar landing is not in the cards. He allowed that he wouldn’t mind a change of plans so he could orbit the Moon a few times instead of just going around it, “but I can say unequivocally that we will not be landing on the Moon.”

Why fly to the Moon in the first place? Tito said he’d been thinking about it ever since his visit to the ISS. He retired two years ago and was “looking for something to do.”

He and his wife both said they hope to inspire others, especially seniors, to try new things.

“Knowing my mission to the space station opened the door for others I know this mission can continue to do the same. And if I can show that a man over 80 years of age can accomplish this, hopefully that can inspire others of all ages to always pursue your dreams.” — Dennis Tito

“I want people to know that they can do whatever they set their mind to. It’s never too late. No matter what your age, race, or gender you can made dreams come true with hard work and determination.” — Akiko Tito

Who will fill the other 10 seats is another unknown. Aarti Matthews, SpaceX’s Director of Starship Crew and Cargo programs, said there is a lot of interest. Maezawa and Isaacman bought the entire capacity of Starship and are picking their own crews. Tito purchased just two of the 12 seats, leaving the rest open to other customers.

“This mission is really groundbreaking in that it really puts us on a very firm step toward airline-like operations where now for the first time really you can buy an individual seat to the Moon. That really opens up, I think, a whole array of possibilities that really have never existed before.” — Aarti Matthews, SpaceX

That perhaps is the big news of the day. When the Titos will make the trip, where it launch and land, and who else will be aboard are up in the air, but two people bought individual tickets around the Moon for the first time.

What about Mars? Tito said his Inspiration Mars Foundation is no longer active. The next time Earth and Mars will be as closely aligned as they were in 2018 will be 2033, he said, and “I think I’d just be too old for that. I think I’m going to retire from space after this mission.”

As things stand today, they could rack up three space firsts: the oldest person and the first married couple to go around the Moon, and the first woman to go around the Moon at least on a commercial mission (NASA has not named the members of the Artemis II mission scheduled to go around the Moon in 2024).

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