SpaceX’s newest crew that last Wednesday launched into space and returned home safely were private citizens that took a wild ride to spend three days orbiting Earth earning a new perspective on the cosmos. They became SpaceX’s first attempt to fly private passengers into orbit and back.
The flight opened the door for more astro-trotters, but at $50 million a pop, it will be the mega-wealthy and their circles of influence who will take a crack at it at first, until economies of scale kick in.
Who are the new astronauts?
Known as Inspiration4, the flight was chartered by 38-year-old billionaire businessman Jared Isaacman and included himself and three others, a trip that cost under $200 million, according to Isaacman.
Isaacman is a billionaire who made his money from a payment-processing company. Two of the three passengers were complete strangers to him and another, Hayley Arceneaux, is a physician assistant who works with children with cancer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She had cancer as a child herself and has said that she’d never meet NASA’s physical requirements for spacefarers because of a titanium rod in her leg. (Isaacman is raising money for the hospital, and wanted to bring one of its employees.)
Sian Proctor, a geoscience professor who was once a finalist in NASA’s astronaut program, won an online competition that Isaacman had set up. And Chris Sembroski is a data engineer, an Iraq War veteran, and a self-described space nerd, who received a winning raffle for the trip that a friend of his had won.
In April, Isaacman not only took them hiking and camping for a weekend as a test of their teamwork and mettle, but also to hang out as friends.
The Inspiration4 mission seems wonderfully devoid of ego. This crew resembles future groups of space tourists: a rich person you’ve never heard of and the people they decide to bring along with them. Eventually, the tagalongs are more likely to be the longtime buddies of the sponsors—the friends they’d normally invite on the yacht, for example—instead of people picked with an eye toward good PR.
Inspiration4 passengers flew all the way into orbit, rounding the planet at thousands of miles an hour for three days before plunging into the atmosphere for a fiery reentry and splashing down at sea.
Isaacman is a licensed pilot with experience flying fighter jets, but no professional accompanied them. The Dragon capsule is an autonomous spacecraft developed via a NASA contract and SpaceX was flying for them. SpaceX has the power to control the capsule from the ground, if needed, but had the vehicle lost contact with mission control, it would have been up to the passengers to manage. Musk seems to have decided that they would do fine on their own. They did.
SpaceX’s human-spaceflight chief, Benji Reed, marveled at how little went wrong during the flight, citing just two problems he described as minor and easily resolved – a malfunctioning fan in the crew’s toilet system and a faulty temperature sensor on one of the spacecraft’s engines.
A new space age?
Within three hours after launch and reaching space, the crew capsule maintained a cruising orbital altitude of 585 km, higher than the International Space Station or Hubble Space Telescope, and the farthest any human has flown from Earth since NASA’s Apollo moon program ended in 1972.
It also marked the debut flight of Musk’s new space tourism business.
Musk’s company already ranks as the best-established player having launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the space station for NASA.
Two rival operators, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc and Blue Origin, inaugurated their own space tourism services in recent months, with their respective founding executives, billionaires Richard Branson and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, each going along for the ride.
Those suborbital flights, lasting a matter of minutes, were short hops compared with Inspiration4’s three days in orbit, at the end of which the quartet of newly minted citizen astronauts splashed down in the Atlantic off Florida’s coast last Saturday, completing the first all-civilian crew ever sent into Earth orbit.
The successful launch and return of the mission marked another milestone in commercial space tourism, 60 years after the dawn of human spaceflight.
“Welcome to the second space age,” Todd “Leif” Ericson, mission director for the Inspiration4 venture, told reporters on a conference call after the crew returned.
Ericson said the flight had so far raised $160 million for the cancer institute, including $100 million donated by Isaacman at the outset.
“Count me in for $50M,” Musk then pledged in a tweet, which would put the fundraiser $10 million over its goal.
Within an hour post landing, the four smiling crew members emerged and were hoisted to the deck of a SpaceX recovery vessel.
A plunge through Earth’s atmosphere generated frictional heat outside the capsule soaring to 1,900° Celsius. The astronauts’ flight suits, fitted to special ventilation systems, were designed to keep them cool if the cabin heated up.
First out was Hayely Arceneaux and was followed in rapid succession by geoscientist and former NASA astronaut candidate Sian Proctor, 51, aerospace data engineer and Air Force veteran Chris Sembroski, 42, and finally the crew’s billionaire benefactor and “mission commander” Jared Isaacman, 38.
Crew’s activities while in space
During their stay in space, the civilians on board conducted a bit of scientific research focused on how their bodies respond to being in space, took time to chat with their families, gazed out a large dome-shaped window called the “cupola,” and listened to music.
During a livestream shared with the public last Friday, Proctor also showed off some artwork she did during her stay with metallic markers and Sembroski strummed a ukelele that will be auctioned off as part of the St. Jude fundraiser.
The Inspiration4 Twitter account also shared footage of Arceneaux speaking to her St. Jude patients, and Isaacman rang the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange via satellite feed on Friday afternoon.