Dennis Tito, first space tourist, books trip around the moon on SpaceX’s Starship

Akiko and Dennis Tito at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in South Texas. Credit: SpaceX

Dennis Tito, an 82-year-old aerospace engineer-turned-financial analyst who paid Russia $20 million for a trip to the International Space Station in 2001, is working with SpaceX on plans to take his wife on what amounts to a belated honeymoon voyage to the moon.

In an interview with “CBS Mornings,” Tito said he and his wife of two years want to fly on Elon Musk’s futuristic Starship for the sheer adventure of it. They also want to inspire senior citizens who might think their horizons are increasingly limited.

And they want to play a part in humanity’s initial steps out into the solar system.

“I’ve been thinking about flying to the moon for the last 20 years, since my space flight,” Tito said. “And here we were at SpaceX (recently) and they were interested in talking about a space flight. And I brought it up. And within a few minutes, we both were on board.”

In a television interview Monday at SpaceX’s sprawling Starship development complex near Brownsville, Texas, Tito and his Tokyo-born wife Akiko, 57, said they hope to blast off with 10 other yet-to-be-named passengers, booked by SpaceX, within the next five years or so, after the rocket completes a series of test flights.

“We will be able to watch the Earth get smaller, and smaller and smaller, and the moon get larger, and larger and larger,” Tito said, describing the planned trajectory. “We will then, upon emerging from the far side of the moon, see the Earth” from a perspective only the Apollo astronauts have enjoyed to date.

“We will be literally out of this world,” he said.

As it now stands, their voyage presumably would follow two other piloted flights of the Super Heavy/Starship rocket: one to Earth orbit, presumably with billionaire Jared Isaacman, who funded the first private orbital flight aboard a Crew Dragon capsule in 2021; and an around-the-moon flight chartered by Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa.

It’s not known when those missions might get off the ground or how much they might cost. Likewise, Tito would not discuss how much he’ll be paying for two seats aboard the Starship.

Whatever the amount, it’s obviously worth it to a man who describes his space station visit two decades ago as “100 percent enjoyment,” adding “I’ve been thinking about it every day since.”

“One of the things I hope to do, we both hope to do, is inspire people that as we get older, there are so many things we still can do,” Tito said. “And flying in space actually is a lot easier than a lot of other things. I mean, I’m beyond the age of skiing, but space is a lot easier than that.”

Said Akiko Tito, a real estate investor and jet pilot: “Like Dennis said, I think age is just a number. We just want to inspire people and especially me, inspire women, you know, young women (who) want to become a pilot in the future, want to become astronaut. You know, work hard and make it happen.”

“Star Trek” actor William Shatner, then 90, set the age record last year when he flew to the edge of space aboard a sub-orbital New Shepard spacecraft. The oldest person to reach orbit was the late John Glenn, who was 77 when he flew aboard a space shuttle in 1998.

Tito could be nearing 90 himself when he finally gets his Starship flight, but he told CBS Mornings correspondent Janet Shamlian he’s in better shape now than when he launched aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to become the first so-called “space tourist.”

“I am probably in better physical shape than I was 21 years ago,” he said, “because I’ve taken up weightlifting in a serious way. And I wasn’t able then to manage the kind of weight I can manage now. So I think I’m in better shape.”

But realizing it could be several years before he blasts off aboard the as-yet-untried Starship, “we’ve engaged in upping our physical fitness activities and health monitoring to really make sure that we’re going to be in shape for many years into the future.”

The regimen includes weight training in a fully equipped home gym along with walking and running on a quarter-mile track outside his house. The couple also has a Pilates studio.

“We’re not counting on (launching) next year,” Tito said. “So we have to stay in good shape, which is a great motivational thing for us because a lot of people when they reach my age, you know, will sit in a rocking chair and wait for the inevitable.”

Akiko Tito said she started working out on a daily basis 20 years ago and now trains for beauty and fitness competitions that focus on “total physical fitness. And then you have to be elegant as well at the same time.”

She said she had no hesitation about joining her husband for a flight to the moon.

“I know him very well, so, ‘yes, here we go,’ you know?” she said. “I wanted to join him. So here we are. We want to make it happen together, as a couple.”

Born in Tokyo, Akiko Tito holds a degree in economics and moved to New York in 1995 to work on Wall Street while raising a daughter. She and Tito were married in 2020 during the COVID outbreak.

“So we didn’t have a chance really to have a honeymoon,” Tito said. Then, laughing, he added, “so maybe this is our honeymoon.”

The 394-foot-tall Starship will be the world’s most powerful rocket when it finally takes off, generating a staggering 16 million pounds of thrust from the 33 methane-burning Raptor engines powering its “Super Heavy” first stage — twice the liftoff thrust of NASA’s $4.1 billion Space Launch System moon rocket.

SpaceX’s upper stage — the Starship — is equipped with six Raptor engines and will be capable of carrying passengers and payloads to the moon and beyond. Both stages are fully reusable and will descend to tail-first landings back on Earth using similar software and techniques perfected using the company’s smaller Falcon 9 rockets.

Starship 24 is lifted and mounted atop Booster 7 at SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, facility where the company is carrying out a series of tests before attempting the huge rocket’s first flight to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

The Starship upper stage has been launched seven times on low-altitude test flights, four of which suffered catastrophic failures during the landing sequence. The most recent test flight in May 2021 was fully successful.

“Every time a rocket explodes, you learn something,” Tito said. “So the more rocket explosions we see, the better because then we’ll get all the bugs out of it.”

The Super Heavy first stage has not yet been launched. SpaceX is in the process of testing its engines and other critical systems before a test flight to boost an unpiloted Starship into orbit for the first time, possibly before the end of the year.

SpaceX already holds a $2.9 billion NASA contract to develop a variant of the Starship to serve as the initial lunar lander in the agency’s Artemis moon program.

Under the current plan, astronauts launched aboard the agency’s third piloted SLS rocket will dock with a Starship in lunar orbit and descend to touchdown near the moon’s south pole in the 2025-26 timeframe. SpaceX is required to carry out an unpiloted test flight, complete with moon landing, before the Artemis 3 mission.

To reach the moon with enough propellant for landing and takeoff, SpaceX plans to refuel the Starship lander in Earth orbit using multiple flights of Super Heavy/Starship tankers. It’s not yet known what role refueling might play in Tito’s mission.

Whether SpaceX can perfect the huge rocket and test it to NASA’s satisfaction by 2025-26 remains to be seen.

SpaceX does not provide details about its schedule and it’s not known how the NASA mission will fit in with the company’s plans to launch the other two currently planned Starship missions before Tito and his wife get their turn.

Isaacman, who funded the first private-flight — Inspiration 4 — to low-Earth orbit in September 2021 using a Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon capsule, has announced plans for three more private missions with SpaceX, including one aboard a Crew Dragon that will feature the first spacewalk by a private citizen.

Isaacman’s three-flight “Polaris” project could include the first piloted flight of the Super Heavy/Starship in Earth orbit, although no details are yet available.

Billionaire entrepreneur and art collector Maezawa, founder of ZoZotown, one of Japan’s largest retail websites, also has booked a Super Heavy/Starship flight to carry him and several companions on the first privately-funded passenger flight around the moon.

Tito’s flight presumably will follow Maezawa’s, but it’s not known whether one or both will precede NASA’s lunar landing mission or whether Tito will get his wish within five years as hoped.

“We’re prepared to wait as long as it takes to get everything perfected,” Tito said.