SpaceX is used to making history with its spaceflights, and their most recent mission was no exception. Despite the Crew Dragon having only flown with astronauts for the first time in May last year, SpaceX has now used that spacecraft to successfully send 4 civilian passengers to space. Having no professional astronauts aboard made the Inspiration4 mission the true first of its kind.
Unlike other recent space-tourism endeavours by Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, Inspiration4 didn’t just take its 4-person crew to the edge of space for a few minutes. The capsule actually embarked on a three-day orbit around the earth, at an orbital altitude of 585km. Not only is that much higher than both the International Space Station and Hubble Telescope, it also means that the crew of four travelled farther from the Earth than any manned spaceflight since the final Apollo missions. As a mark of just how far things have come since then, Inpsiration4 has demonstrated the first true orbital flight of ‘space tourists’, and opens the door to a future of civilian spaceflight.
The crew of Inspiration4, from left, Chris Sembroski, Dr. Sian Proctor, Jarred Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux. (SpaceX)
What exactly is Inspiration4?
Civilians paying to go to space is not a new idea, and a few lucky tourists have travelled to orbiting space stations since the early 2000’s. However, these passengers have always been accompanied by professional astronauts and paid hefty prices to secure a seat. In recent years, the race has been on to find more affordable and sustainable ways of sending tourists to space.
Billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos recently flew to the edge of space in privately funded space capsules and planes. However, their flights were sub-orbital, meaning they flew to the edge of space before quickly returning to Earth. They did not orbit the Earth and only spent a few minutes under zero-g conditions. Inspiration4 was vastly more complex than all previous civilian flights, and aimed to send the crew into orbit around the Earth, not just on a simple sub-orbital trajectory. And despite not having any professional astronauts aboard the flight, the civilian crew were expected to train vigorously to ensure they could solve any issues should they arise.
The mission was both lead and funded by Jarred Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire. Isaacman wanted to fundraise for St Jude’s Childrens Hospital as an incentive for the flight. He donated 2 seats to St Jude’s, and the third was won via social media competition. St Jude gave the first seat to Hayley Arceneaux who is a child bone cancer survivor who was treated at the hospital, and now works there as a physician assistant. The second seat was won by Christopher Sembroski, a U.S Air Force veteran and space enthusiast. The third and final seat was won by Sian Proctor who is a geology professor and science communicator. Each of these four crew members were picked to represent the four mission principles: Leadership, hope, generosity and prosperity.
The crew of Inspiration4 train in a zero-g environment aboard a spaceplane. (Netflix)
The Crew of Inspiration4
Jarred Isaacman – Leadership
Jarred Isaacman is the billionaire founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments. He started the company aged 16 from his parents’ basement during the internet boom, and it is now one of the leading payment companies in the world and gave Isaacman the fortune to fund Inspiration4. Isaacman is also an accomplished jet pilot who broke several world speed records in an effort to raise money for foundations like Make-A-Wish. His ultimate dream of going to space looked more likely when SpaceX debuted the Crewed Dragon spacecraft to shuttle astronauts from American soil to the ISS in 2020. However, Isaacman didn’t want to simply buy a ticket to space – he wanted to both inspire everyday people with the prospect of space travel while also raising money for a good cause. Isaacman selected the other 3 crew members on this basis, and they together spent months of intensive training to prepare them for their journey to space.
He acted as the mission commander, saying:
“In fulfilling a personal and lifelong dream, I also recognize the tremendous responsibility that comes with commanding the mission. While a historic journey awaits us in space, I hope this mission reinforces how far inspiration can take us and the extraordinary achievements it leads to here on Earth”.
Commander Jared Isaacman gazes toward the Earth from the cupula window during a live-stream call to Earth. (Netflix/SpaceX)
Hayley Arceneaux – Hope
St Jude’s chose Hayley Arceneaux as their first member to be a part of the Inspiration4 crew. Hayley is a survivor of childhood cancer after being diagnosed when she was just 10. Incredibly, Hayley not only made a full recovery, but she went on to become a physician at St Jude’s where she was once treated. She now works to support children who are going through a similar experience to her own, and her selection for this mission represents the hope that she instils in her young patients.
During an interview after being selected, Arceneaux said “I definitely think that my journey with cancer prepared me for this. Having cancer made me tough or at least I’d like to think that – so I feel ready for space travel”. At just 29 years old, Acreneaux became the youngest American to go to space, and the first ever person to travel into space with a prosthesis which she received during her cancer treatment. “It’s an incredible honour to be a part of this mission that is not only raising crucial funds for the lifesaving work of St. Jude’s but also introducing a new supporters to the cause and showing cancer survivors that anything is possible”.
Hayley floats upside down as the crew calls Earth to give them a mission update (Netflix/SpaceX)
Christopher Sembroski – Generosity
The second seat from St Jude’s was won via a raffle to fundraise money for child cancer research. The first person who was selected in this raffle actually gave up their seat and offered it to their close friend Christopher Sembroski, who was also a part of the fundraising effort. Sembroski is a veteran of the Iraq war and a current engineer at Lockheed Martin, who has close ties with NASA.
Sembroski grew up with a natural curiosity about space and spent many nights stargazing and launching rockets from his high school. As a U.S Space Camp counsellor, he conducted simulated space shuttle missions and supported STEM-based education designed to inspire young minds to explore these areas and find their passions in science and technology. Sembroski’s wife said that she always knew he wanted to go space after the first thing he said to her at a friend’s BBQ was “So… did you watch the Shuttle launch this morning?”. Sembroski was chosen to represent generosity for to his donation to St Jude’s.
Smiles and thumbs-up from the crew as they reach space during the live launch (Youtube/SpaceX)
Sian Proctor – Prosperity
The fourth and final seat was won by Dr. Sian Proctor, a professor of geo-science and two-time astronaut candidate for NASA, though she was never selected. Proctor had dreamed of going to space since a young child and her failed candidacy to be a NASA astronaut never deterred her. Proctor was chosen to be the pilot on Inspiration due to her experience with NASA – a decision she couldn’t be more ecstatic about. She was chosen after a successful social media campaign centred on why she wanted to go to space.
A teary-eyed Proctor spoke about what it means to her in an interview before launch:
“I am the mission pilot and it’s really special for me to hold that title because I am going to be the first black female pilot of a spacecraft. There have been 3 black female astronauts who have made it to space and knowing that I will be the fourth means that I have this opportunity to not only accomplish my dream but also inspire and inspire the next generation of women of colour and girls of colour, and to get them thinking about reaching for the stars and what that means. I feel very fortunate to have that – ‘space to inspire’ has always been my motto as a teacher”.
A prolific science communicator, poet, and artist, Proctor hopes that her journey to space will inspire children of all backgrounds and show that even when she was initially denied her dream of going to space, it never deterred her –and now it’s happening.
The crew of Inspiration4 launch to space from Florida atop a Falcon 9 rocket.
The journey of a lifetime
The crew of Inspiration4 entered their Dragon spacecraft capsule named Resilience as the sun set over the Florida coast on Thursday 16th of September. “Go Dragon, Go Falcon, Godspeed Inspiration4!” called mission control as the crew blasted off atop their Falcon 9 rocket. Just nine minutes later, the engines shut down and the crew of Inspiration4 had reached space. Live-feed video inside the capsule showed a crew giving thumbs up as they smiled from their seats – the sheer excitement and joy on their faces was clear.
The crew spent the next three days in space, orbiting at a height of 585km – well above the astronauts aboard the ISS at 420km. The Dragon Resilience capsule is almost completely automated, and the crew did not need to give much input into the controls of the capsule. They performed several experiments on board, snapped incredible photos from the windows and cupula module of the breath-taking views while orbiting the Earth 15 times a day. The crew phoned home several times during their stay in space, calling friends and loved ones, while also giving a tour of the inside of the Dragon capsule. After the three-day voyage, the capsule began its automated sequence to return the crew back to Earth safely. The crew strapped back into their seats with their spacesuits as the capsule began a de-orbit burn to lower the orbit of the capsule until it began to hit the Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule streaked across the sky before deploying several parachutes and making a safe splashdown off the coast of Florida. The mission ended at just after 7pm local time, with mission control calling to the crew “Welcome home back to planet Earth”.
The crew exited their capsule once it was picked out of the ocean on a ship, and the faces of all the crew were seemingly just as excited and happy as the first day, smiling and cheering as they retracted their spacesuit helmets.
The Resilience capsule safely splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida (NASA/SpaceX)
The mission broke many firsts for not just for SpaceX, but the entire spaceflight industry. The success of Inspiration4 has demonstrated the advances in automation technology that will open a new era of spaceflight and space tourism, and its diverse crew has proven that space exploration will continue to open up to more and more people in the years ahead.