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Japanese tycoon reboots contest for moon trip

Will the third time be the charm for Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese entrepreneur who’s looking for company on a trip around the moon?

Two and a half years ago, Maezawa announced that he would buy a ride on SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket — and select half a dozen artists on a par with Pablo Picasso or Michael Jackson to accompany him on a flight around the moon and back (without making a lunar landing).

A year ago, Maezawa took a different tack: He set up a reality-TV contest to choose a soulmate to be by his side, and invited women from around the world to apply. A couple of weeks later, he canceled the project and apologized to the 27,722 women who signed up.

Today marks the third try: Maezawa is opening up a fresh opportunity for folks to apply for a spot on his Starship, via his dearMoon website.

“I’m inviting you to join me on this mission,” he said in a video. “Eight of you from all around the world. It will be 10 to 12 people in all, but I will be inviting eight people to come along on the ridc.”

The current plan calls for the Starship launch to take place in 2023. A Super Heavy booster would lift the Starship to Earth orbit. Then the spaceship and its crew would loop around the moon and return to Earth. The round trip would last about six days in all.

Maezawa hasn’t said how much he’s spending on the project, but the speculation is that it’s on the order of a couple of hundred million dollars. In comparison, the founder of Japan’s Zozotown online fashion mall spent $110.5 million in 2017 on an abstract painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Since then, Maezawa sold most of his stake in Zozo to Yahoo Japan for $2.3 billion.

In the video released today, Maezawa acknowledged that his plan for sharing the moon trip has evolved over the past couple of years.

“I began to wonder … Who do I mean by artists?” he said in Japanese. “A singer? A dancer? A writer? The more I thought about it, the more ambiguous it became. And I began to think that maybe every single person who is doing something creative could be called an artist. … If you see yourself as an artist, then you’re an artist.”

Maezawa said he’ll be looking for people who can “push the envelope” of their creativity by going to space, and who are willing to support other crew members with similar aspirations.

Two other privately funded space missions have come to light just in the past couple of months. One flight, organized by Axiom Space, is scheduled to send a four-member crew to the International Space Station for a 10-day visit early next year. The other orbital flight will be piloted by tech billionaire Jared Isaacman as soon as this year.

Both those missions are to make use of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule. But SpaceX CEO Elon Musk noted that the Starship mission would be the first to take humans on a private tour beyond Earth orbit. He said the looping trajectory would send the spacefliers farther beyond the moon than the Apollo astronauts flew.

“We expect people will go further than any human has ever gone from planet Earth,” Musk said. “So I think this will be very exciting for people to tune in and watch this, and enjoy the flight vicariously.”

The current plan calls for folks to pre-register by March 14. The project’s organizers will screen what’s likely to be tens of thousands of applicants, and then conduct rounds of interviews. The final interviews and medical checkups are due to occur in late May, with crew selection scheduled by the end of June. Months of training will follow.

Musk is notorious for his optimism when it comes to meeting schedules, and the Starship test program has resulted in a couple of spectacular crash landings in Texas. But Musk insists that Starship will be ready for the trip when the crew’s ready.

“I’m highly confident that we will have reached orbit many times with Starship before 2023, and that it will be safe enough for human transport by 2023,” he said. “It’s looking very, very promising.”

Update for 10:25 p.m. PT March 4: Two days after the contest was announced, Maezawa says more than 300,000 people have signed up — which suggests the folks screening all those applications won’t be spending a lot of time weighing my entry. India leads the list of 237 countries and areas in the number of applications submitted.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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