Why SpaceX’s private Inspiration4 mission to Earth orbit is so important
I get butterflies before every major rocket launch, and the fluttering is going to be particularly intense on Wednesday night (Sept. 15).
That’s when SpaceX’s private Inspiration4 mission is scheduled to lift off, sending four astronauts on a three-day orbital jaunt. Crewed missions are especially anxiety-inducing, given the intrinsic danger of spaceflight, but there are extra white-knuckle layers to this one.
For starters, Inspiration4, which aims to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, is doing something new: It’s the first-ever all-civilian mission to Earth orbit. People who aren’t professional astronauts have circled our planet before, aboard NASA’s space shuttle, Russian Soyuz spacecraft, Russia’s Mir space station and the International Space Station (ISS). In fact, current NASA chief Bill Nelson is one of those folks, flying on the shuttle Columbia’s STS-61-C mission in January 1986 while a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
But those amateurs all traveled with professionals — NASA astronauts or Russian cosmonauts who survived a rigorous selection process and then trained for spaceflight as a regular part of their job. There will be no such guardrail presence on Inspiration4.
This isn’t a cause for alarm. The Inspiration4 crew will fly on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, a highly advanced and automated spacecraft that has showcased its abilities on multiple crewed missions to the ISS for NASA. Indeed, the vehicle scheduled to launch on Wednesday, known as Resilience, aced SpaceX’s six-month Crew-1 mission to the orbiting lab, which splashed down this past April.
Inspiration4 will be less complex than Crew-1, zooming solo around Earth without any ISS rendezvous (though Resilience will fly significantly higher than the orbiting lab on the upcoming mission). And the Inspiration4 astronauts have trained extensively, spending the six months since their March selection getting familiar with Crew Dragon and its systems and prepping for the various rigors of spaceflight.
The Inspiration4 crew pose with a Saturn V rocket in the background at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. From right to left: Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman and Hayley Arceneaux. (Image credit: John Kraus/Courtesy of Netflix)
In addition, Inspiration4 commander Jared Isaacman — a tech billionaire who paid for the flight — knows how to handle high speeds and dangerous situations. He’s an experienced pilot who has flown in numerous airshows with the Black Diamond Jet Team. He donated the three other seats for the flight (which will be filled by geoscientist Sian Proctor as pilot; St. Jude physician’s assistant Hayley Arceneaux as medical officer; and data engineer Chris Semproski as mission specialist).
Still, the novelty component of Inspiration4 ratchets the anxiety level up a notch, at least for me. And so does the importance of the mission, which could help blaze a new trail for commercial spaceflight.
Space tourists have launched to Earth orbit before. Between 2001 and 2009, for instance, seven different paying customers traveled to the ISS aboard Soyuz spacecraft, on trips organized by Virginia company Space Adventures. More such missions are in the offing as well. A Russian film crew is scheduled to launch toward the orbiting lab on a Soyuz next month, and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and video producer Yozo Hirano will make a similar journey in December. (Maezawa and Hirano are flying via Space Adventures, though the film crew will not.)
But as noted above: these previous flights all included at least one professional spaceflyer, as will the Soyuz missions slated to launch later this year. So Inspiration4 is potentially laying the foundation for more all-tourist flights to come. It’s also bringing SpaceX into the space tourism business, a significant development given the company’s considerable clout, capabilities and accomplishments.
SpaceX will become a bigger and bigger player in this arena over the next few years, if all goes according to plan. For example, Houston-based company Axiom Space has booked four Crew Dragon trips to the ISS, the first of which is scheduled to lift off in January 2022.
These missions will carry all-private crews, which are expected to consist of three paying customers and one veteran spaceflyer hired by Axiom. The commanders of the first two Axiom missions will be Michael Michael López-Alegría and Peggy Whitson, both of whom are former NASA astronauts. (Whitson has spent a total of 665 days in space, more than any other American and any other woman.)
Axiom also plans to launch a private module to the ISS and eventually operate its own space station in low Earth orbit (LEO). Such commercial outposts will likely be needed to maintain the United States’ footprint in LEO after the ISS is retired, whenever that may occur. (The ISS partner agencies have agreed to continue operating the station through December 2024, but NASA has cleared it to fly from a technical standpoint until the end of 2028, and it could potentially stay aloft even longer than that.)
So Inspiration4 may help humanity carve out an exciting and dynamic future in Earth orbit in the near future. Orbital space tourism will almost certainly be the exclusive province of the extremely wealthy for a long time to come, but commercial activity in this regime could well benefit the the rest of us as well — via pioneering pharmaceutical research on private space stations, for example, or the manufacture of tricky or delicate materials in microgravity.
We don’t know what our current moment will lead to. Space fans are notoriously big dreamers, and reality has repeatedly taken a hammer to our outsized ambitions over the years. But Inspiration4 is something new that could help pave the way for very big things down the road, and it’s worth marking, and celebrating, that possibility.
Our human-spaceflight future could be really exciting if SpaceX’s Starship deep-space transportation system gets up and running as planned, by the way, but those are musings for another time…
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.