An all-civilian, non-astronaut crew, including a childhood cancer survivor, is ready for blastoff this week on a history-making SpaceX flight. Launch is scheduled for Wednesday evening for the first fully commercial, non-government flight to orbit, a charity-driven mission proponents say will open the door for “everyday people” to fly in space.
While billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos made headlines earlier this summer spending a few minutes in weightlessness during up-and-down sub-orbital flights to space, the Inspiration4 crew will spend three days orbiting the Earth aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. And not just any orbit. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will boost the Crew Dragon Resilience into a planned 360-mile-high orbit, 100 miles above the International Space Station, higher than anyone has flown since the final shuttle visit to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009.
From that lofty perch, the civilian crew of four will enjoy unrivaled 360-degree views of Earth and deep space through a clear, custom-built dome in the nose of the capsule.
“It is the first time that a global superpower hasn’t sent people up into orbital space,” Jared Isaacman, the tech billionaire who’s paying for the Inspiration4 mission, said when introducing his crew in March. And I believe that it should be a signal of the future.
“Someday in the future, 50, 100 years from now, you’re going to have a lunar base, you’re going to probably have some sort of a Martian colony. You have to begin somewhere. When this mission ends, I believe people will look back and see that it is the first time every person has been able to go into space. “
Regardless of the hype, the flight does, in fact, mark an historic milestone. Although it isn’t clear if this flight will be a sign of the future, Isaacman states that it represents a first step towards opening the frontier up to non-professionals.
The Inspiration4 crew is expected to blast off, weather permitting, Wednesday evening from launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, the same pad used for Apollo moon missions. SpaceX will announce the exact launch date after evaluating near-term weather forecasts.
The Crew Dragon flight will last approximately three days and end with a fiery dive back to Earth followed by a parachute assisted splashdown in either the Atlantic Ocean east of Cape Canaveral, or depending on weather conditions, the Gulf of Mexico.
Isaacman, along with his crewmates, will be collecting medical data as well as carrying out life-science experiments. This high-profile project is designed to raise funds and shine light on St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis.
Crew members offer “powerful and inspiring story”
Isaacman, the 38-year-old founder of Shift4 Payments, is believed to have paid SpaceX in the neighborhood of $200 million for the ride to orbit for him and three crewmates, who were chosen as part of his personal St. Jude charity drive.
A renaissance man of sorts, Isaacman dropped out of high school at age 16 to develop what became Shift4 Payments, a company that processes payments for more than 200,000 restaurants and other retail outlets. Isaacman is also an experienced aviator and owns a number of fighter jets that are used to train military pilots.
The Guardian, in a review of a Netflix docu-series about the mission, described Isaacman as “that rarest of beasts — a genuinely personable billionaire. “
He will be joined aboard the Crew Dragon by Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old science teacher, one-time astronaut candidate, private pilot and artist; aerospace engineer Chris Sembroski; and Hayley Arceneaux, at 29 the youngest person to fly in orbit.
Treated for bone cancer at St. Jude when she was 10 years old, Arceneaux is now a physician assistant at the famed research center. Isaacman suggested her to St. Jude, and she chose Arceneaux as one of four mission’s guiding principles. “Hope” was the name Isaacman gave her. “
” Since I joined the crew,… She said that she has had many chances to tell my story and inspire others in ways I could not have imagined. “I’ve heard from many families who are struggling with their own cancer journeys, and I’ve gotten to share my story with kids who are going through the exact same thing that I went through 19 years ago. They should never give up.
“It’s an incredible honor to be part of this Inspiration4 mission,” she said when Isaacman introduced her to the media. While we are on a great adventure, we know we will do incredible work here. “
Proctor and Sembroski were chosen as part of a sweepstakes-type contest. Proctor was selected to represent “prosperity” after using Shift4 Payments technology to promote sales of her art and poetry, posting a Twitter video that was viewed more than 70,000 times.
Sembroski entered the sweepstakes for the “generosity” seat on a whim, not thinking he had a realistic chance of winning. His wife Erin didn’t know he applied. He was correct. He didn’t win. The person who won, a friend he had at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University declined the seat and gave it to Sembroski.
A former Space Camp participant, Sembroski stated that the flight is “an amazing opportunity…to inspire more people to give their talents and gifts to the world and to show kindness and generosity with one another.” This is the message that I want to return. “
Isaacman, taking the “leadership” position, will serve as mission commander. On top of what he paid SpaceX to charter the Inspiration4 mission, he said he would donate $100 million to St. Jude.
” Why are we doing it? Isaacman spoke about the flight to launch what he hopes will be the greatest fundraising and awareness campaign ever. We must fight childhood cancer if we want to live in a world that allows everyone to go out and travel among the stars. “
His crewmates were selected to highlight “the good we’re trying to do with the mission. “
“Everyone who is going to participate in this mission must be able deliver an inspiring and powerful story,” Isaacman stated.
Some critics have raised concerns about the “billionaire joyrides into space” that Branson and Bezos flight elicited. SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Isaacman insist this is not the case for Inspiration4.
“This flight is an important step towards providing space access for everyone,” Musk said to reporters at the announcement. Because it is new technology, the prices start out high because of low volumes and low production rates. We need to find people willing to spend the initial high price to ensure that it is affordable long-term for all. “
Isaacman announced the flight on February 1 and revealed Arceneaux’s name on February 22. Proctor and Sembroski were named on March 30. Since then the crew have spent five and a half months getting ready for their flight. They’ve studied mission plans, trained in SpaceX simulators, been through centrifuge runs, and taken rides in Isaacman fighter jets. As a team building exercise, they went mountain climbing. Now it’s time for the pilot to take off.
Some flight details kept in the dark
Unlike NASA missions, which are managed by a federal agency required by law to operate in the open, SpaceX is a private company and mission details are provided at the discretion of the rocket builder and Inspiration4.
Despite the historical nature of the flight details regarding the Crew Dragon’s ascent trajectory and post-launch emergencies, crew rescue situations, and the re-entry timeline were not available immediately from SpacrX. But the Netflix documentary “Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space” filled in some gaps. The crew’s Twitter accounts also provided more insight.
While the Falcon 9 will take off from the Kennedy Space Center, launch complex 39A is leased by SpaceX, which is responsible for its operation. While NASA personnel and security will be present on the launch pad, agency personnel can assist with rescue operations. However, SpaceX will solely take responsibility for creating and launching Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon.
Isaacman, his crew members, and their crewmates, will be wearing custom SpaceX pressure suits at a company facility rather than NASA’s crew quarters before they are escorted up to the rocket. NASA will stream SpaceX’s launch coverage. However, the agency won’t play any other roles in the broadcast or mission.
SpaceX will be solely responsible for the decision to proceed with launch based on the the rocket’s health, weather at the launch site and weather conditions along the capsule’s trajectory where the crew could be forced to make an emergency landing in a launch abort. A good forecast is required for launch.
The countdown will be virtually identical to the one SpaceX uses when launching astronauts to the space station for NASA.
Isaacman and his crewmates will begin strapping in about three hours before launch. Propellants will be loaded starting at T-minus 35 minutes and if all goes well, the Falcon 9’s nine first-stage engines will ignite and throttle up to 1.7 million pounds of thrust for liftoff.
Even though the crew will not be visiting the International Space Station, they will follow the same trajectory NASA astronauts use, taking off on a northeasterly path paralleling the East Coast, one tilted 51.6 degrees to the equator. The ship will be lifted out of dense, lower atmosphere by the first stage. While the Falcon 9’s first stage takes off, the single Falcon 9 engine that powers the second stage will then take control of the ship while the pilot controls the flight path to land on an offshore droneship.
For space station rendezvous missions, the Crew Dragon separates from the second stage about 12 minutes after liftoff. The capsule’s nose cap opens to reveal a complicated docking mechanism that attached the ship to its space station.
For the Inspiration4 mission, SpaceX removed the docking mechanism and replaced it with a multi-layer plexiglass dome, providing room for two crew members at a time to poke their heads out of the capsule for an unimpeded 360-degree view.
Space motion sickness and other risks
One potential downside is that one-third to half of astronauts who fly in space experience some form of space motion sickness, or SMS, brought on by zero-gravity fluid shifts toward the upper body and related neuro-vestibular issues.
Symptoms can include nausea, loss of appetite, headaches and, in severe cases experienced by 10% to 20% of those who fly in space, the sudden onset of “projectile vomiting. “
Jonathan Clark, a former space shuttle flight surgeon now at the Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine, said it typically takes two to three days for astronauts to complete their adaptation to weightlessness, at which point the unpleasant symptoms taper off.
However, any Inspiration4 crew members suffering from motion sickness may have to return to Earth’s gravity fields as they adjust to weightlessness. This can create additional difficulties.
It is impossible to know who will feel SMS. Test pilots can be just as vulnerable as those with little flight experience.
” The irony is that just because you have never experienced any type of terrestrial-based or airborne motion sickness doesn’t make it impossible to get space sickness. Clark stated. I’ve witnessed the most difficult astronauts be severely affected. “
Statistically, he said, one or two of the Inspiration4 crew members will not have any symptoms and any who do likely will have relatively mild cases. The other extreme could be possible. Arceneaux is a doctor assistant and would likely be able to give medication.
Any motion sickness aside, the crew will still face what many would consider a relatively high-risk endeavor.
Professional astronauts are paid to fly in space and receive years of training before they ever get to launch. Because they work in an environment that has seen fatalities in flight, both on the launch pad and in space, professional astronauts are more conscious of risk than anyone else.
“No crew member has expressed any fear, Isaacman said to Netflix. But I think there may be other concerns, such as for the family. While I am aware of the risk, my family is not fully informed about the potential risks. “
Isaacman’s wife Monica put it this way to Netflix: “It’s strange, like now, that we’re closer to it you start dreaming of the stuff. You start to think about the possible outcomes and risks. He is my pride and joy. You have your best days, and your worst days. “
SpaceX’s track record
Going into the Inspiration 4 flight, SpaceX had launched 124 Falcon 9 rockets, all of them successful except one that exploded during a 2015 cargo launch to the International Space Station. Since then, the company has launched 109 successful flights in a row. Four successful launches of Crew Dragon capsules to carry astronaut crews to and from the International Space Station have been made.
Adding to the comfort level, the Crew Dragon features a flight-tested “full-envelope” abort system that includes powerful rocket motors and sophisticated fault-detection software to instantly propel the capsule away from a malfunctioning booster at any point from the launch pad to space. But depending on the location of the launch abort, crew members could be in water at any point along the trajectory from Cape Canaveral up to the North Atlantic Ocean.
For NASA space station launches, Air Force Detachment 3 personnel stationed at nearby Patrick Space Force Base and in Charleston, South Carolina, are on standby to rescue a downed crew anywhere along its trajectory, with the goal of reaching a capsule within 24 hours in a worst-case scenario. The team is able to reduce the time to landing an emergency vehicle closer to Florida to 6 hours. In Hawaii, the Air Force has a station to assist crews in an emergency landing.
It’s unknown what SpaceX plans SpaceX may have to save the Inspiration4 crew in case of an unplanned landing or abort. The capsule has survival equipment, such as a radio, radios, and life rafts to ensure that the crew is safe until Coast Guard rescue personnel arrive.
SpaceX’s ability to launch private space missions is rooted in NASA’s drive to encourage development of commercial spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, ending the agency’s sole reliance on Russia for post-shuttle space transportation.
In 2014, after a series of competitions, NASA announced that Boeing and SpaceX would share $6.8 billion to develop independent space taxis, the first new U.S. crewed spacecraft since the 1970s.
Under a $2.6 billion contract, SpaceX built a crewed version of its Dragon cargo ship that rides into orbit atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. The Starliner, Boeing’s spacecraft was built under a contract worth $4.2 billion and uses United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets.
SpaceX launched a piloted test flight to the space station last May, the first operational flight last October and a second crew ferry flight this past April. SpaceX plans to launch its fourth NASA crew rotation flight in October.
Boeing has not yet launched a piloted test flight of its Starliner capsule because of unresolved technical issues.
Unlike past piloted spacecraft that were built to NASA specifications and were owned and operated by the government, Boeing and SpaceX retain ownership of the new “commercial crew” ships and both companies are free to launch non-government missions.