With the launch of Inspiration4 aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, four average Americans have become the first non-professional astronaut crew in history.
The Crew Dragon Risslience carrying Christopher Sembroski, a data engineer and Air Force veteran; Dr. Sian Proctor, a geology professor; Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant and cancer survivor; and Jared Isaacman, the billionaire backer behind the mission launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39A on September 15. Unlike all other spaceflights before it, this one has no affiliation with a governmental agency or branch of the military.
SpaceX is a private company launching private citizens aboard a privately-developed spacecraft. And yes, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic will certainly argue that they got there first. But there is no comparison.
The crew of Inspiration4 is not on a suborbital joy ride. They are in orbit around Earth. In fact, they’re in orbit around Earth at a higher altitude than any human being has flown since the final Hubble service mission more than a decade ago.
Unlike the passengers aboard Blue Origin New Shepard and Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo flights, the crew of Inspiration4 will not drift peacefully back down to Earth. The crew will go through the brutality of reentry, traveling at over 25,000 kilometers per hour as the spacecraft is subjected to hot plasma that reaches temperatures of over 1,500 degrees celsius.
Then, there’s the experience itself. New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo passengers enjoy just a few minutes of weightlessness. The crew of Inspiration4, who underwent months of training to prepare for the mission, will be on their own for three days eating, sleeping, and doing the other human necessity in a space no bigger than your average bathroom! They’ll witness hundreds of the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises, glimpse the world as only a select few have before, and enjoy endless hours of weightlessness.
So, why does this matter? Well, apart from the obvious commercial implications for SpaceX, it’s a pathfinder mission that seeks to usher in a future in which the average Joe and Jane can slip the bonds of Earth and experience something profound.
“The all-civilian Inspiration4 astronauts are paving the way for a future where space is more accessible to all who wish to go, and we are so proud that they entrusted us to fly them,” said SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell.
This future is, however, not on our doorstep just yet. The cost of such a trip is still well beyond all but the wealthiest among us. If not for Isaacman, the other individuals that make up the Inspiration4 crew would have had little chance of affording a seat aboard a Crew Dragon flight.