It’s the dawn of a new space age.
Four civilians — a billionaire, a physician’s assistant, an aerospace worker, and an educator and trained pilot — will be launching into space on Wednesday evening.
The mission, titled Inspiration4, will be the first to send an all civilian crew to orbit Earth.
Sitting atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will be four private citizens in a specially modified Crew Dragon capsule awaiting to start three days of orbiting the Earth, the first time an all-civilian crew will have orbited the planet.
Rather than just climbing to the edge of space and returning to land in less than an hour as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin recently did, Inspiration4 will circle the Earth and do so in a higher orbit than the International Space Station.
What does this mean for the future of civilian space travel? Will space become the next ultimate human amusement park?
NASA Director Phil McAlister weighs in after more than 20 years working in the space industry.
How much does it cost to go into space?
It depends, says McAlister. For a trip on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard, seats typically cost $250,000 to $500,000..
►Virgin Galactic’s recent flight: FAA grounds Virgin Galactic while it investigates July 11 space flight with Richard Branson
“Those are suborbital transportation systems. They are about a 15 minute ride, and they just barely touch the edge of space and then come back down. They don’t go into orbit,” McAlister says.
The Inspiration4 mission is different.
The spacecraft of civilians will go into orbit and circle the Earth for three days, similar to orbital spaceflight required for astronauts to get to the International Space Station.
►The Inspiration4 mission: No professional astronauts: SpaceX will launch first all-civilian crew into orbit tonight
Paying for it all is Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire high-school dropout, who is promoting the flight as massive fundraising effort for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Issacman, a pilot who is qualified to fly commercial and military jets, reached a deal with SpaceX in late 2020 for the mission.
Neither is saying how much he is paying SpaceX for the launch, though Isaacman has said it was far less than the $200 million he hopes to raise for St. Jude.
For NASA astronauts, McAlister says, orbital trips can have a $58 million price tag, based on averages calculated from commercial contracts with SpaceX and Boeing.
While $58 million may seem like a lot, it’s actually a great bargain for NASA.
After retiring its space shuttle, NASA had to pay Russia around $80 million for each seat on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
“We wanted to end that reliance and make sure that we had a U.S. capability to transport our astronauts,” says McAlister. “The other goal that was explicitly part of the program was to enable a commercial capability to fly non-NASA customers into space.”
The privatization of space by American companies
This initiative to partner public and private resources for American space exploration has been years in the making.
NASA has been working with SpaceX and Boeing on their systems for the last 10 years, transferring their knowledge from more than 60 years of human spaceflight and innovation in low Earth orbit.
“During that 60 years, only about 600 people have flown the space, and the vast majority of them have been government astronauts. I think in the next 60 years, that number is going to go up dramatically, and the vast majority of them are going to be private citizens,” McAlister says.
►Inspiration4 mission makes history: Cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux to become youngest American in space with SpaceX launch
The goal for NASA is to eventually retire the International Space Station and allow companies to build their own space stations with the latest technological designs that require less maintenance.
In the future, astronauts could just rent seats on space shuttles and stay at rooms in space stations, similar to how business travelers buy plane tickets from airlines and sleep in hotels.
“If you remember back when airline travel first debuted, it was very expensive, and it was only for the very wealthy that can afford it. And then entrepreneurs entered the market. Forces of competition brought prices down to the point where today, most people, not everybody, but most people can afford a flight from New York to California,” says McAlister. “I’m hoping that the same thing happens with human space transportation.”
What would a trip to space look like?
Getting onto a spaceship definitely wouldn’t be as simple as a check in process at the airport. The participants on Inspiration4 had to train for months, understanding spacecraft systems and preparing for the physical toll of space.
Joining Isaacman, the billionaire, will be:
►Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at St. Jude. She was treated for bone cancer herself at the hospital as a child.
►Chris Sembroski, an aerospace worker from Seattle who was selected from among 72,000 entries based donations to St. Jude.
►Sian Proctor, an educator and trained pilot who was a finalist in NASA’s 2009 astronaut class.
SpaceX and Isaacman unveiled their project to the world in a TV ad that ran during the Super Bowl in February encouraging people to apply for the mission.
Once the crew of Inspiration4 is up in orbit, they’ll be running a series of experiments to contribute to health research, such as drawing blood and measuring sleep activity.
In a SpaceX press briefing, SpaceX Director Benji Reed outlines his vision: “We want to make life multiplanetary, and that means putting millions of people in space.”
The health data from the flight will be shared with research institutes and medical schools to better understand how the human body is impacted by space and what we can do to make space a potential travel (or living) destination.
McAlister also imagines that a big chunk of the crew’s time will be spent just looking out the window, staring in awe at the curvature of the Earth and the thin blue line of atmosphere encircling it.
“You go up there, and you can see the Earth, the whole Earth from space, and there’s no boundaries. There’s no borders, and you feel a connectedness to the human race that you didn’t necessarily feel before,” says McAlister. “You come back with a better appreciation for our home planet.”
Florida Day contributed. Michelle Shen is a Money & Tech Digital Reporter for USATODAY. You can reach her @michelle_shen10 on Twitter.