WASHINGTON — The first private astronaut to fly on the International Space Station plans to return to space on a trip around the moon aboard SpaceX’s Starship with his wife and up to 10 other people.
SpaceX announced on October 12 that it has sold tickets to Dennis and Akiko Tito for the second Starship crewed mission around the Moon. The two are the first of 12 people to go on this mission, whose schedule is unclear.
The mission, as currently designed, involves a Starship launched into low Earth orbit that would encounter a depot, another Starship whose tanks would have been filled with propellant from additional Starship launches. Once the Moon-bound Starship’s tanks are full, it will fire its engines on a circular orbit, a figure eight that will take it around the moon and within 200 kilometers of its surface before returning to Earth. The entire mission would take about a week, including three days each way to the moon and back.
The flight will be a return to space for 82-year-old Dennis Tito, who flew a Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS in April 2001 as the first private astronaut to visit the station and the first to pay his own way into space. It spent eight days in space before returning to Earth on another Soyuz.
In the years since the flight, Tito said he had no interest in returning to space, but on a call with reporters he explained that changed as he watched SpaceX’s progress. “Over time, watching the developments of SpaceX and exactly what they were doing fascinated me,” he said.
The first discussions with SpaceX about a flight took place a little more than a year ago, he said. At the time, he recalled company officials asking him if he was interested in returning to space, and he said he wasn’t interested in a return trip to the ISS or another orbital flight. “But I would be interested in going to the moon,” he said. “And then I looked at Akiko, and we made a little eye contact, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, me too.’ And that’s how it all started.”
Akiko Tito, an engineer, pilot and real estate investor, said the flight fulfills an interest in space dating back to her childhood. “This mission is the first of many that will help humanity become multiplanetary, and I feel very honored to be a part of it,” he said on the call.
The mission, which does not have an official name, will be the second Starship circumnavigation mission. In 2018, SpaceX announced that it had sold a flight of the Starship — then known as the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR — to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who planned to fly himself and a team of artists around the moon on a mission called ” dearMoon”.
Maezawa launched a competition to select the crew for that flight in March 2021, with the goal of selecting the crew by that summer and beginning training for a mission then planned for 2023. However, Maezawa did not has yet to announce the crew for the flight, and the most recent update, over a year ago, simply said the finalists had completed medicals. The project did not respond to a request for comment on Oct. 12 about the status of the dearMoon mission.
There were also few details about the flight that Titus will make around the moon. There is no timetable for the mission except that it will take place both after dearMoon and after a flight of the Polaris program, an initiative led by billionaire Jared Isaacman, which will be the first flight of a crewed Starship. Aarti Matthews, director of Starship crew and cargo programs at SpaceX, said the company has not yet decided whether the mission will launch from the Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas, or from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Dennis Tito declined to say how much he and his wife paid for the flight. There will be two of up to 12 people on the flight, with SpaceX actively working to sell the remaining seats. “We have a lot of interest in the other positions in the mission. We’re talking to a lot of different customers,” Matthews said.
The Starship has yet to make its first orbital launch attempt, although Starbase crews are currently installing a Starship vehicle and its Super Heavy booster for testing ahead of a possible orbital launch attempt in the coming months. By contrast, when Dennis Tito flew aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in 2001, the vehicle had been in service for more than three decades and had flown several dozen crewed missions.
Tito said he was not concerned about the Starship’s current lack of flight legacy, predicting that the Starship would be launched “hundreds” of times before its flight. “That’s not going to happen in the near future,” he said of his mission. “There will be many flights, many tests. I think the vehicle will actually be tested better when we fly than even the Soyuz was when I flew 21 years ago.”
“We are confident that we will have this vehicle fully tested and ready to go by the time we fly this mission,” Matthews said.
Preparations for both Titos’ flight and the previous dearMoon mission are separate from SpaceX’s work on a lunar lander version of Starship that the company is developing for NASA’s Human Landing System program. “The mission profile is quite different, so we expect these two flights to be quite independent of each other,” Matthews said.
Dennis Tito added that he was not interested in landing on the moon and would probably retire from space flight after the circumnavigation. “I can say unequivocally that we will not land on the moon. This is a completely different mission,” he said.
He added that he would be open to orbiting the moon instead of wandering around it as currently planned. “That would be wishful thinking, but if it happened, I’m not going to complain.”