Four people are set to launch to space Wednesday night aboard a SpaceX capsule, and none of them are professional astronauts. Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist, booked the Crew Dragon capsule last year and picked three normal folks to ride with him. It will be the first completely private mission to orbit.
Dubbed Inspiration 4, the mission is a multimillion-dollar fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Hospital and — like a lot of recent flights to space these days — an effort to convince those watching from the ground that space won’t be always be exclusive to government officials and the ultra-wealthy. Isaacman’s crew includes Hayley Arceneaux, a cancer survivor and St. Jude physician assistant; Sian Proctor, a geology professor and former NASA astronaut candidate; and Christopher Sembroski, a data engineer at Lockheed Martin.
The Inspiration 4 crew is slated to launch Wednesday at 8:02PM ET atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, buckled inside the same Crew Dragon capsule that nearly a year ago sent a four-person crew of government astronauts to the International Space Station and back. This mission’s destination is about 80 miles higher than the ISS. In orbit, they’ll view Earth through two windows and a new glass dome that was added to the top of the capsule, where Crew Dragon’s ISS docking door was. The crew will reenter the atmosphere after three days, depending on the weather around Florida, and splash down in the Atlantic ocean. SpaceX recovery teams will likely meet up with the capsule, hoist it onto a ship, extract the crew, and bring them ashore.
A look at Dragon’s Cupola, which will provide our Inspiration4 astronauts with incredible views of Earth from orbit!
The crew visited the flight-hardware Cupola in California before it was shipped to Florida for integration with Dragon Resilience. pic.twitter.com/9ivMZrS1ip
— Inspiration4 (@inspiration4x) September 1, 2021
Isaacman, a trained pilot and the founder of a payment processing company, is the commander of the flight. He has said he wanted to arrange a diverse crew of passengers who weren’t billionaires. He paid for all four seats on Crew Dragon, and dropped the first $100 million of a $200 million fundraiser for St. Jude, a nonprofit research facility and hospital that provides free care to children with cancer. Isaacman reserved two of the seats for St. Jude — one would go to the winner of a fundraising campaign and the other would go to Arceneaux, who works at St. Jude as a physician assistant in Memphis, Tennessee and will serve as the mission’s medical officer.
Arceneaux, 29, is a childhood cancer survivor who will become the first person with a prosthetic body part to launch to space. Metal rods were placed in the part of her left leg that had a cancerous tumor as a child. Sembroski, the Lockheed engineer, will occupy the seat reserved for the winning participant of the St. Jude fundraising campaign. A friend of Sembroski’s won, but couldn’t go on the trip and passed the ticket to him instead.
The fourth seat went to Sian Proctor, the winner of a contest hosted by Shift4, the payment company owned by Isaacman. Contestants had to create a website using Shift4 software and produce a short video of themselves explaining why they wanted to go to space. Proctor, 51, taught geology at a community college in Phoenix, Arizona and will become the fourth Black woman, and the first person from Guam, to go to space. In 2009, she got close to becoming a NASA astronaut as one of nine finalists in a monthslong, notoriously difficult selection process.
The crew has been training since March, about seven months before liftoff. That includes centrifuge training to get used to the enormous G-forces of lifting off atop a rocket, a microgravity experience aboard a Zero-G flight, and weeks of training at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California to familiarize the passengers with Crew Dragon.
Besides the passengers’ personal mementos, like family items and school memorabilia, the mission is full of sponsorships: 66 pounds of hops are on board Crew Dragon that, once returned to Earth, will be used to brew beer by Samuel Adams, “the official beer of Inspiration4,” the mission group said in a press release, adding the brewer made “a maximum $100,000 donation to St. Jude.” All the passengers will wear branded watches, Sembroski will play an onboard ukulele from Martin Guitar, and a bunch of other things on board will get auctioned off once they’re back on the ground as part of the ongoing St. Jude fundraiser.
If all goes as planned, Inspiration 4 will mark the first fully private mission for SpaceX, which developed its Crew Dragon spacecraft as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. That program funded development of two competing space capsules — Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner — to serve as NASA astronauts’ ride to the ISS.
For the Commercial Crew Program, NASA is a customer — not an owner — of the spacecraft, much like Isaacman is the main customer for Inspiration4. A core goal behind the program was to help stimulate a market for commercial spaceflight, awarding SpaceX roughly $3 billion and Boeing roughly $5 billion to help get started. Boeing’s Starliner has yet to launch humans. But Isaacman’s mission, which will mark the fourth crewed flight for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, a key intent of NASA’s program, has come to fruition. As NASA’s human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders recently said in the Are We There Yet? podcast, Inspiration 4 “is like watching your kids graduate from college.”
But whether private space tourism will really be accessible to a larger swath of passengers remains to be seen. A seat on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon costs roughly $55 million, and a seat on Starliner is somewhere around $90 million, according to government watchdog reports.
For a shorter experience, other companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are offering brief suborbital jaunts to the edge of space — but these are still extremely expensive. Right now, Virgin Galactic charges $450,000 for a seat on its SpaceShipTwo, which flies some 53 miles high for a few minutes of weightlessness and views of Earth’s curvature. Blue Origin hasn’t announced prices for a seat aboard its suborbital New Shepard rocket, which launches about 66 miles above ground for a similar experience.
With Isaacman footing the multimillion-dollar bill for his three fellow passengers’ tickets to space, and both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flying highly publicized back-to-back missions, the space tourism industry is in a phase buoyed by billionaire backers and ultra-wealthy customers. Getting out of this phase, as industry figures have said, will require drastic drops in the cost of building and launching rockets.
“We’ve been hearing that for so long, that until it happens, it’s not unusual that people are a little skeptical about that,” says Alan Ladwig, who in the 1980s led NASA’s Space Flight Participant Program, an initiative to send civilian storytellers like teachers and journalists to space as a way to get the public excited about human spaceflight.
“But in order to get to the endpoint we want, you have to go through this initial step, with the early adopters and paying higher costs to go in order to eventually lower the cost,” he said.