SpaceX’s Latest Mission Will Launch Four People Into Orbit
The Inspiration4 mission shows private spaceflight’s promise, but also how far it has to go before just about anyone can travel to orbit.,
One is a 29-year-old physician assistant living in Memphis, a cancer survivor with metal rods in her left leg to replace bones destroyed by a tumor.
Another is a 51-year-old community college professor from Phoenix who fell just short of achieving her dream of becoming a NASA astronaut.
The third is a data engineer living in western Washington who was once a counselor at a camp that offered kids a taste of what it’s like to be an astronaut.
The fourth, 38, is a high school dropout who became a billionaire founder of a payments processing company. He is the one that is paying for a trip into space the likes of which have never been seen before, where no one aboard is a professional astronaut.
This crew of four is scheduled to head to space together, launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday at 8:02 p.m. Eastern time in a SpaceX rocket. They will orbit the planet for three days at an altitude higher than the International Space Station.
The mission, known as Inspiration4, is also the first where government is, by and large, a bystander. It’s also far more ambitious and risky than the minutes-long jaunts to the edge of space completed by two ultrarich business celebrities, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, in July.
The trip shows that a private citizen, at least someone with a couple hundred million dollars and a few months to spare, is now able to essentially rent a spacecraft to circle the planet.
In this case, it’s Jared Isaacman, founder of Shift4 Payments, a company that processes payments for restaurants and other businesses. His public profile is far lower than that of Mr. Branson or Mr. Bezos.
While the two traveled in spacecraft operated by companies they founded, Mr. Isaacman’s flight is being managed by SpaceX, the private company run by Elon Musk, another billionaire whose company has upended the space business in the past decade, achieving what competitors had thought infeasible while offering lower prices for getting to space.
A trip like Inspiration4 is still affordable to only to the richest of the rich. But it is no longer impossible.
In deciding to spend a sizable slice of his fortune, Mr. Isaacman did not want to just bring along some friends. Instead, he opened opportunities to three people he did not know.
The result is a mission with a crew that is more representative of wider society — Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old Black community college professor; and, Christopher Sembroski, a 42-year-old data engineer.
“We’ve been receiving all the same training for all these emergency procedures as any other NASA astronaut crew has in the past,” Mr. Sembroski said during an interview last week. It was the last day that he and his crewmates spent at their homes before going to Florida for the launch.
“I think we are more than ready to go to head off into space,” Mr. Sembroski said.
The varied life stories of the Inspiration4 crew present a marked contrast with Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos, whose excursions were seen by many as joy rides for billionaires.
“The world did not see how it benefits them,” Timiebi Aganaba, a professor of space and society at Arizona State University, said of the Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights of Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos. “They were like, ‘This is just a playground for the rich.'”
With his crew of everypersons, Mr. Isaacman is endeavoring to achieve a goal of science fiction authors and space enthusiasts: to open space to everyone, not just professional astronauts and wealthy space tourists.
“The difference with this flight is that we have three very ordinary people who are basically on the flight, and they’re going to show us what it means to open this up,” Dr. Aganaba said.
Dr. Proctor, who learned to fly planes as part of her effort to become a NASA astronaut, pointed to Ms. Arceneaux, a cancer survivor who will become the first person with a prosthetic to travel to space. That, she said, broadens people’s idea of who can be an astronaut.
“That’s one of the reasons why representation matters,” said Dr. Proctor, who will be the first Black woman to serve as pilot of a spacecraft. “And access matters.”
The mission also reflects a rising role for private enterprise in space.
“It represents part of the transition in low-Earth orbit to private sector activities, which NASA has been pushing for a number of years,” said John M. Logsdon, founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “Because it involves humans, it is high visibility. But in its essence, it’s just part of a larger movement.”
The mission is using the same Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule that SpaceX developed to take NASA’s astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Indeed, the capsule that will send Mr. Isaacman and his crewmates to circle Earth is the exact same one, named Resilience, that was used for a NASA mission that launched in November last year. It then returned to Earth in May.
For Inspiration4, Mr. Isaacman gave names to the four available seats in the spacecraft to represent qualities he hoped the mission would represent: leadership, which was for him, and hope, generosity and prosperity for his fellow passengers.
When he decided to use the trip to help raise money for St. Jude, which provides free cancer care for children, he asked the hospital to suggest a frontline health worker to represent hope. Hospital officials presented Ms. Arceneaux. The generosity seat, which went to Mr. Sembroski, raised money for St. Jude through a raffle. Then Mr. Isaacman’s company Shift4 conducted a contest asking for entrepreneurial ideas, and Dr. Proctor won the prosperity seat by creating a store to sell space-themed art she makes.
But she noted that Mr. Isaacman was paying all of the bills, including for a Super Bowl commercial in February that introduced the mission to Americans.
Mr. Isaacman has declined to say how much he is paying, only that it was less than the $200 million he hopes to raise for St. Jude.
“We’re still very far from regular people being able to go to space,” Dr. Aganaba said.
In the Netflix documentary, Ms. Arceneaux invited friends over to watch the Super Bowl — a small gathering complete with a film crew. “I told my friends that I had a really big secret,” she said.
Her friends thought she was going to be a contestant on “The Bachelor.” When the Inspiration4 commercial aired, “One of them said, kind of jokingly, ‘Oh, you’re going to space?’ And that’s when I said, ‘Yes, I’m actually going to outer space.'”
In March, the four began intensive training, including swinging around a giant centrifuge in Pennsylvania to become acclimated to the crushing forces experienced during launch and landing. They flew in a plane that simulates the experience of free fall.
They also spent 30 continuous hours in a Crew Dragon simulator at SpaceX, running through contingency plans for a multitude of emergencies.
“The moment it started and throughout the whole thing, time went by so fast,” Mr. Isaacman said. “We were like, we’ll do it again.”
They did do it again, with another 10-hour simulation.
Ms. Arceneaux will serve as the flight’s medical officer and conduct some research on the crew during the flight. Dr. Proctor is to serve as pilot, although the spacecraft largely flies itself. Mr. Sembroski as mission specialist will have an assortment of responsibilities, while Mr. Isaacman is the flight’s commander.
It could well be years before another launch anything like Inspiration4. The cost of seeing Earth from orbit will remain far beyond most people’s means. And the endeavor carries high risks, with many observers invoking the death of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who was aboard the space shuttle Challenger when it disintegrated during launch in 1986. It’s far from a commercial airline flight and more like the orbital equivalent of scaling Mount Everest.
“I would contend it’s not really a market,” said Roger D. Launius, a private space historian who previously worked at NASA and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “Fundamentally, this is a joy ride that people are going to do once.”
Still, that the opportunity is even available is a major shift.
For decades, astronauts were usually government employees — people who worked for NASA or the Soviet space program who launched in rockets operated by their government.
During the Obama administration, NASA decided to hire private companies to build spacecraft for trips to the space station. It selected Boeing and SpaceX for the job.
Capitalizing on an earlier contract to send cargo to the space station, SpaceX had already captured a dominant share of the market for launching commercial satellites with its Falcon 9 rocket.
NASA hopes the federal investment in the Crew Dragon capsule can similarly spur a larger market for taking people to space. That path, however, remains uncertain. For now, nonprofessional space travelers fall into two groups: people with lots of money and people in the entertainment business.
A Houston company, Axiom Space, is scheduled to lift off early next year, also using SpaceX’s Resilience capsule. The mission will take three people, paying $55 million each, for a visit to the International Space Station lasting several days.
A Discovery Channel reality television contest, “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?” is to offer a trip to the space station on a later Axiom mission as the prize.
The Russian space agency has also resumed selling seats on its Soyuz rockets for trips to the space station. In October, a Russian actress, Yulia Peresild, and Klim Shipenko, a filmmaker, could go to the space station to shoot movie scenes. They could be followed months later by Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese fashion entrepreneur.
Mr. Maezawa’s 12-day trip will be a prelude to a more ambitious around-the-moon journey he hopes to embark on in a few years in the giant SpaceX Starship rocket currently in development. That trip, named Dear Moon, will perhaps be the closest in spirit to Inspiration4. A contest to select eight people to accompany him drew a million applicants, and Mr. Maezawa is currently sifting through the finalists.
Ahead of the flight, the crew said during a Tuesday news conference at SpaceX’s hangar at Kennedy Space Center that they were confident and not feeling prelaunch jitters.
“I was always worried that this moment would never come in my life so I’m ready to go,” Dr. Proctor said. “Let’s do it.”