So, last Thursday, SpaceX announced there would be an event to reveal the first private passenger it will send to the Moon, and I was headed to Los Angeles for it when the Vernon Unsworth thing broke.
You may remember Unsworth as the cave diver who Elon Musk called a pedo. Musk apologized before doubling down a couple times and essentially daring Unsworth to sue for defamation. Unsworth’s suing; he’s filed in the US, and that filing suggests we have a UK suit to look forward to as well. There are tighter libel laws in the UK, so that suit will likely be punishing if it goes ahead. The TL;DR from a real lawyer, and not someone who plays one on Twitter, is that it’s a defensible case in the US. (Hyperbole, insult, opinion — mostly fine in this country. The statements of fact that would be actionable all occur in, uh, emails to BuzzFeed.)
Anyway, that was Monday morning. Monday evening was all about the Basquiat-collecting clotheshorse billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, the first passenger on the Big Fu— uh, Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). Maezawa, we found out, was one of the original two people who signed up to fly on the Falcon Heavy. (The Falcon Heavy trip isn’t happening, Musk said in February.) The amount of money was undisclosed, but here’s Musk: it’s a “significant price, which will have a material effect on paying for cost and development of BFR. It’s a nontrivial amount that is a material impact to the BFR.” Maezawa wants to bring artists with him for a project he is calling #dearmoon. For the selected artists, the flight will be free.
Maezawa wants to send great artists — like “painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, film directors, fashion designers, architects” and not, I notice, writers, who were also excluded from his handy-dandy slide — to space for inspiration. Hey man, this newsletter only needs a little embellishment to be extremely trendy autofiction written in epistolary fashion, just saying. This newsletter isn’t confusingly-written, it’s avant-garde, okay.
As a press event, it was pretty run-of-the-mill: TV news people kept yelling at me for getting in their shot, and the front of the event was filled with SpaceX employees (and, for some reason, Tesla’s Franz von Holzhausen) who were there to applaud, I guess, and so I got precious few usable photos. I asked Maezawa what he most wanted to do in space, which he deflected: he is looking forward to the art from the mission most, I guess. Look, being in space that long is likely to be uncomfortable (vomiting, G-forces), but there are plenty of consolations! Besides looking out the window at the awesome — I mean that in the archaic sense of awe-inspiring — view, it’s very fun to leave gravity behind.
But whatever, wealthy patrons for art are a known quantity. (Shoutout to the de’ Medicis!) The unknown quantity at this point is the BFR, as the design has changed again.
I asked Musk how much it would cost to develop the BFR, and he said $5 billion (low end, $2 billion, high end $10 billion). Look, I’m a dilettante, but that seems low? The Space Launch System, NASA’s similar rocket, has cost about $2 billion to develop, annually, since 2016. But SpaceX’s whole deal is that it does things more cheaply than everyone else; Musk’s estimate isn’t out of whack with what Marco Cáceres, a senior space analyst at the Teal Group, told Business Insider. The thing that’s likely to cost money is delays.
Which brings us to the timetable. It was cute that Musk told Tesla shareholders in June that he has an “issue with time.” (Here’s Musk, in full: “My brother used to, like, when we were catching the bus to school, he would lie to me about the time. And he would always say it was earlier than it actually was, and then I would get there slightly after that — and then we would actually be able to catch the bus.”) Anyway, the goal is to fly this bad boy with Maezawa and his cohort of artists as early as 2023, which…
Okay, so even Musk is trying to temper expectations on that: “If I had some sort of crystal ball, I’d love to know how long something takes,” he said on Monday. “You have to set some kind of date that’s the ‘things go right’ date and then, of course, we have reality. And things do not go right in reality. There are many setbacks and issues… we will do everything humanly possible to bring it to flight as fast as we can and as safely as we can.”
No one has, as yet, flown on a SpaceX rocket anywhere. Sure, yes, plenty of stuff has gone to the International Space Station on SpaceX rockets, but no astronauts. The Crew Dragon won’t have passengers until 2019 at the earliest; originally, astronauts were meant to fly as early as 2017.
This is the latest delay for human crewmembers on SpaceX rockets. Musk said in 2011 that astronauts would fly on a SpaceX rocket three years later; also in 2011, Musk said his best-case scenario was to put people on Mars by 2021. (His worst-case scenario? 2026 to 2031 for the first human-Mars interfacing.) In 2016, he said he planned for a Mars trip for astronauts by 2025.
This is just SpaceX! If we turn our attention to Tesla, well: the Model S was announced in 2008, and production was scheduled for 2010; production actually began in 2012. The Model X was introduced in February 2012, and it was initially scheduled for production in early 2014; deliveries started in September 2015. Oh, and at its 2017 launch, the Model 3 was supposed to be a $35,000 car for the masses. Right now, only the most expensive versions are available for purchase; the base model won’t be for sale until 2019.
So anyway, you and Maezawa and Musk and whoever else should feel free to believe the 2023 deadline if you want. But if Maezawa does fly that year, I will go full Werner Herzog and eat a shoe.
If one were feeling paranoid, one might note that the big announcement of Maezawa’s flight was the same day as the unveiling of Audi’s first all-electric SUV, the E-tron. One might perhaps further note that should the flight’s timetable change — for delays or redesigns — it will not alter the flurry of initial press.
One might. I don’t. I do view this announcement as a distraction, but not for us. It is a distraction for Musk! Look, SpaceX is Tesla’s older, more competent sibling, and Tesla is clearly stressing out Musk right now. (SpaceX has even lent Tesla money; Tesla paid SpaceX $165 million in 2017 when SpaceX’s Tesla bonds matured.)
Doing this announcement gives Musk the opportunity to engage in the things he clearly enjoys: imagining a future, inspiring other engineers, and talking about rocket engine design. After several sour weeks, showcasing this side of his personality is probably an immense relief. I bet even the Unsworth lawsuit can’t dim that.
But the SpaceX peace didn’t last. On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that Musk is the subject of a criminal investigation for his Tesla tweets from last month. (Yes, it was only last month! The “funding secured” tweet was on August 7th! There’s some weird quantum thing where the more closely you watch Elon Musk, the more news he generates!) That probe probably won’t go away quickly, though an expert told Business Insider that most DOJ probes don’t end with criminal charges.
Oh, also: the SEC has subpoenaed both Silver Lake and Goldman Sachs for materials on their Tesla encounter, since the two were involved in Musk’s abortive effort, according to The New York Times. About 12 hours after the kumbaya atmosphere at SpaceX, the spotlight was once again on Tesla.