On Wednesday last week, Musk’s SpaceX launched the first-ever space flight without any professionally trained astronauts on board. The ‘all-civilian crew’ comprised one billionaire and three other ‘ordinary citizens’.
Launching from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the crew aboard the Dragon capsule shot out on the mission dubbed Inspiration4.
The group of amateur astronauts were in orbit for around three days where, along with the weightlessness experience, dabbled in a little science experiment that will help raise $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The first entirely private crew were aboard the Dragon capsule called Resilience in an entirely automated flight. The capsule which normally ferries four NASA astronauts to the International Space Station instead flew to an altitude of around 580 km (360 miles) which is around 129 km (80) miles higher than the ISS at its highest point. This is also roughly the same height from where the Hubble Space Telescope views the expansive cosmos.
After three days in space, the four-person crew returned to earth on Saturday. They landed safely splashing down into the ocean off the coast of Florida.
The All-Civilian Crew
Much has been made about the ‘all civilian’ crew that did not include any professional astronaut however a deeper look into their profiles reveals that none of the crew is a ‘normal civilian’, at least not as I define it.
First, the venture is sponsored by a billionaire Jared Isaacman, 38 who made his riches building Shift4 Payments, a credit card payment platform that processes up to $200 billion in payments annually.
To his credit, however, he did not simply gift the remaining seats to friends and family but to people, he deemed to have inspirational stories.
29-year-old Hayley Arceneaux’s story is perhaps the most inspirational of the three of them. As a child, she overcame bone cancer and then went back to work for the medical facility that helped her during that hard time – the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital located in Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, this is part of the reason for the space trip. Mr Isaacman aims to raise $200 million to fund St. Jude’s work in treating children with cancer.
Next is Dr. Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and science communicator. She is actually the closest thing to an astronaut in the group having tried out in 2009 but narrowly missing out in the final round of selection. It is however her work as an artist and her entrepreneurial skills that got a spot in the group. She spent much of her time on board Resilient painting while looking out the Dragon’s domed window.
Last but not least is Chris Sembroski, a US Air Force veteran who is an aerospace engineer at Lockheed Martin. He got the seat by making a donation to St. Jude that entered him into the lottery for the position. What’s more surprising however is that he did not win it, he was given the slot by a friend who asked him to take his place.
Space launches can be very dangerous and NASA makes sure to train their astronauts as well as they can to prep for the flight. This starts with a careful selection of the team from a very long list of applicants. The fittest and most qualified group then trains together for years so that they know how to work together and thus have the best chance of survival in space.
The Inspiration4 however did not have the luxury of years of training time. The crew selection itself as pointed out earlier was not as rigorous while the group only trained together for only 6 months. This was however not a big factor as the flight was pretty much automated so that they didn’t have to do much to facilitate the flight, they only had to take care of themselves.
Nonetheless, training is still necessary. The crew had to complete centrifuge training that would get them used to the variation in g-forces during the trip. They also flew in fighter jets and went hiking on Mt. Rainier.
Explaining the necessity of such training despite the flight being mostly automated Isaacman tweeted
“Keeps you focused, works crew resource management and executing in a dynamic environment.” Plus, “pics look cool.”
New Era for Space Travel?
Last week’s launch was the third private crew to travel into space this year. The other two were launched in July by Bezos’ Blue Origin and Virgin Atlantic. They show an increasing shift from government-sponsored to commercial flights into space.
While some have been quick to criticize these flights as a preserve of the super-rich, it falls right in line with any new venture. Much like vehicles in the early 20th century and then human flight a few years later, the first products are always very expensive so that only a few can afford them. But as we get better at space flight, we will see the cost plummet to be affordable for the average person.
A few years down the line and we will see more and more people afford trips to space and back. It is only then that we will be able to be a true multi-planetary species. For now, though, most can only wait and let the billionaires take the first steps for us.