In the last two months, we’ve watched two billionaires fly their personal rockets on suborbital flights that they celebrated with lots of self-aggrandizement. On Wednesday evening, another billionaire will launch, not on his personal rocket, but on one he’s renting from billionaire No. 4 for another tourist flight. Which, on the face of it, seems like more of the same. Space tourism, right on the face of it, is very easy to dismiss as the ultimate folly of people whose personal wealth so greatly exceeds that of the average American that they already live on another world. That kind of assessment is … fair enough.
But there are a couple of things about the launch this afternoon that make it distinct from the ones that send Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos on half-hour joy rides to the edge of the atmosphere. One of those is that Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who bought this flight from SpaceX, has made the Inspiration4 flight into a fundraiser for cancer research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. That includes raising over $200 million for the hospital. $113 million was raised by raffling off one of the four seats on the flight. Isaacman then cut a check for $100 million—which is very likely quite a bit more than he paid for the flight itself.
Even that may be easy to dismiss. After all, Isaacman has a net worth of around $2.4 billion. Writing that $100 million check is the equivalent of someone whose net worth is $200,000 handing over about $8,500. It’s generous, but not backbreaking. What SpaceX charged Isaacman for the flight isn’t clear, but it’s likely somewhere between the $30 million that the company has announced as the target it wants to reach for such flights, and the $60 million it currently asks when using a Falcon 9 for a satellite launch. Both ends of that scale are extremely large numbers. Even more so than shelling out $250,000 or so for a flight on Branson’s or Bezos’ entertainment devices, this is an experience that very, very few people are going to be able to afford.
Even so … there are reasons to watch.
Honestly, the fundraising effort could be seen as a distraction. Isaacman could have written the entire $200 million himself to begin with and skipped the rocket flight. After all, being worth $2.2 billion rather than $2.4 billion is not a hardship. However, there’s a case to be made that by harnessing the enthusiasm of those interested in spaceflight to secure donations in St. Jude, the project urges people to take a role in both spaceflight and cancer research, and makes them feel invested in the progress of both.
The other big difference between this flight and the ones that were just in the news is … a big difference. Rather than simply sending people up to skirt the edge of space and land a few minutes later to shake up some champagne, Inspiration4’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule will take the all-civilian team onboard into actual orbit. In fact, they’re going to go higher further from Earth than any human being has been since the last time the Hubble Telescope was serviced by the Space Shuttle in 2009. Inspiration4 will orbit for over three days, before making a splashdown.
There is no debate about whether the crew of Inspiration4 is going to space. They’re going to space.
While the rockets make look similar, the difference between a “sounding rocket” that makes a suborbital trip and an orbital craft is great. In just the last two weeks, a pair of American companies—Firefly Aerospace and Astra—attempted to make their first launches to orbit. Both failed. Astra’s rocket lost an engine while still on the pad, did a spectacular job of maintaining stability until it could burn off enough fuel to climb away from the launch pad, and then was destroyed in flight. Firefly’s rocket also seemed to lose an engine early, then lost control just as it reached supersonic velocity, and then was destroyed in flight. Both showed that while some of the technology may seem familiar, rocket science remains … rocket science. (Note: Both flights were, thankfully, uncrewed. These are small rockets meant to compete in a market where most satellites are much smaller than they were a decade ago.)
In the last two weeks, the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) has also made it clear that Branson’s flight to space was anything but problem-free. It now seems that Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane had multiple problems on ascent, which required some skillful action on the part of the pilots and led to the plane going outside of approved airspace for an extended period while gliding back to the ground. All of this is under investigation. In the meantime, Branson’s space tourism business is grounded. Again … rocket science.
In many ways, the Inspiration4 flight, with its trip to orbit and multiple days looping around the planet, is several orders more dangerous than any suborbital flight. If nothing else, it means this crew will be doing a reentry, which is often regarded as the most dangerous portion of the whole trip. That’s a step that really doesn’t come into play for the relatively low-speed suborbital flights.
On the other hand, they’re riding on top of a Falcon 9, which has proven to have a 98% safety record over 126 flights. One Falcon 9 disintegrated shortly after launch in 2015. Another failed during a test firing in 2016. But the problems that caused both those failures have been addressed to the extent that NASA selected the Falcon 9 for human flights. It may not have the astounding safety record of Soyuz, which has conducted over 100 crewed launches.
Just as Jeff Bezos gained a significant number of smiles by inviting former test pilot and should-have-been astronaut Wally Funk along on his flight, Isaacman isn’t making this flight alone. With Isaacman will be Hayley Arceneaux, who beat her own childhood cancer and is now a physician assistant at St. Jude. The official pilot of the mission will be Dr. Sian Proctor, who won her seat in a contest conducted through Isaacman’s payment processing business. The final member of the crew is Chris Sembroski, the winner of the raffle who got his spot onboard by making a donation to St. Jude.
While it’s easy to dismiss the whole team in terms from the old Mercury-Gemini days as “Spam in a can” just riding along on an automated flight, both Isaacman and Proctor are actually experienced pilots and all four crew members have trained to fly the spacecraft and perform a number of other tasks in an emergency. Proctor will be the first Black female pilot of any spacecraft, and just the fourth Black female in space. Sembroski is an Iraq War veteran.
Their tourism will also include some medical experiments carried out by Arceneaux, some of which will be monitoring her own health. As a survivor of childhood bone cancer, she’ll be the first person in space to fly with a partially prosthetic limb. At 29, she’ll also be the youngest American to ever go into space.
There’s another factor involved in this flight: It may not be a NASA flight, but NASA definitely wants it to occur. In creating the Commercial Crew program, NASA hoped to get the costs for flight down specifically by becoming “one of many” when it comes to customers wanting people ferried to orbit. From the beginning, the agency was counting on space tourism, as well as potential customers from proposed commercial space stations to orbital hotels, to provide a larger demand for getting people into space than they could ever match even if the U.S. human spaceflight program goes into high gear. That idea of other customers was, and is, intended to act as a lure to SpaceX and Boeing (and potentially others such as Sierra Nevada) to get them to put more funds into developing their crewed systems than NASA was willing to commit.
What’s happening on Wednesday evening is space tourism. It’s also a fundraiser for childhood cancer, and a publicity stunt for a financial company, and a chance to carry out experiments, and a way to hopefully get people excited about the idea that they could be on the next flight, even if that means winning a raffle. It’s also the culmination of NASA’s plan to spread the cost of human space flight to other customers. Meaning that, in a way, this flight is generating a savings for everyone.
Launch is currently scheduled for 8:02 PM ET.
Thursday, Sep 16, 2021 · 12:19:16 AM +00:00
Launch went off with everything apparently good. Inspiration is in space.
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