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Astronaut says one thing might stop artists from visiting the moon with SpaceX

Can anyone just travel to space?
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will be SpaceX's first private passenger to the moon and he wants to invite people on this trip. But can he? How healthy do you have to be to travel into space?

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa wants to bring several artists with him when he travels around the moon on SpaceX‘s Big Falcon Rocket.

“I would like to reach out to top artists that represent our planet from various fields,” Maezawa said at SpaceX’s headquarters in California on Monday.

“I wish to create amazing works of art for humankind.”

READ MORE: SpaceX’s first private passenger to the moon will be Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa

The billionaire fashion designer paid an undisclosed amount to charter SpaceX’s BFR, meaning he gets to bring whoever he wants on the 100-passenger spacecraft after it’s been built and properly tested. Maezawa previously bought a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting for US$110 million, and he told Reuters that the SpaceX price was “much higher” than that.

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Maezawa says he wants to bring a wide range of up to eight creative people to document the experience. However, he might not be able to bring everyone he wants to, because age and health can restrict someone from travelling into space, according to former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman.

“You don’t want somebody with a weak heart to go through a launch or re-entry,” said Hoffman, who is now a professor in MIT’s aeronautics and astronautics department.

Hoffman flew on five space shuttle missions with NASA and logged more than 1,000 hours in orbit during his career. He says space travel is a taxing experience that exposes the human body to intense physical pressure during takeoff, which can equal up to six times the regular force of gravity — or six “gees.” Re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere can also be a rough experience, he said.

That means Maezawa’s guests might have to prove they’re up to the physical challenge before they’re cleared for the flight, which is expected to loop around the moon in four or five days. Hoffman says SpaceX might put its passengers through a simulator to make sure they can handle the force of takeoff.

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“You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete,” Hoffman said. “You just have to be basically healthy.”

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He adds that Maezawa could potentially bring people who are in their 60s or 70s, but they would have to be in great health.

“There are some 50-year-olds who are not in good enough physical condition because they have a bad heart, [and] there are probably people in their 80s who would do just fine,” Hoffman said.

NASA says the average age of its astronaut candidates is 34, although it has accepted applicants ranging from 26 to 46. Several people in their 50s have also travelled into space.

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The oldest astronaut in space was John Glenn, who spent nine days in orbit at the age of 77.

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“He was in great shape,” Hoffman said.

Those who are deemed healthy enough for the trip might also be put at risk of developing heart issues down the road, according to a study published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports in 2016.

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The study found that astronauts who’d been to the moon were nearly five times more likely to die from heart disease than those who remained on Earth or in its orbit.

The study authors suggested the astronauts were exposed to radiation that is typically deflected by the magnetic field surrounding the Earth.

Training for space

NASA astronauts spend up to two years training for missions to the International Space Station. Hoffman says the SpaceX passengers wouldn’t need nearly that much training, because the pilots will probably take care of all the technical tasks such as repairs and flying the spacecraft.

One or two astronauts are expected to be on board the flight, Maezawa tweeted on Wednesday.

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“They don’t have to learn how to operate the vehicle, but they have to learn how the basic communications equipment works. How you go to the bathroom, how you prepare food,” he said of the passengers.

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“Even if nothing goes wrong, there’s still some things you’re going to have to do just to keep alive for a week.”

Tips from an astronaut

Hoffman says Maezawa and his artist guests should plan out their trip as much as possible, so they can maximize their time away from Earth.

“Once you get there it’s going to go by very quickly,” he said.

Hoffman has never been to the moon, but he says there will be plenty to enjoy on the journey, especially if the SpaceX rocket orbits the Earth before it heads to the moon.

READ MORE: Who is Yusaku Maezawa, SpaceX’s first billionaire moon passenger?

“Take advantage of that time looking at our planet, because the Earth is so beautiful. We never got tired of looking out the window,” he said.

A matter of time

SpaceX founder Elon Musk says his Big Falcon Rocket will be ready to launch a commercial flight around the moon as soon as 2023. However, Musk acknowledged on Monday that his timeline might be a bit ambitious.

“It’s not 100 per cent certain we can bring this to flight,” Musk said on Monday.

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Musk says the trip will be streamed back to Earth in virtual reality, and that he might even join Maezawa on the rocket himself.

Hoffman says he thinks SpaceX will pull off the journey — eventually.

“I don’t see any reason why they can’t do it,” he said. “As far as the timetable, nothing that Elon Musk has ever promised has happened on time.”

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SpaceX would be the first company to send a private individual around the moon, but not the first to send tourists into space. Seven individuals have paid tens of millions of dollars to visit the International Space Station.

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Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin have also been developing plans to launch tourists into space.

Hoffman says he’s impressed by how far the private sector has taken space travel over the last decade or so, and a visit to the moon is just the next step on that path.

“I think it will be great for the long-term development of space exploration,” he said.

— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press