SpaceX takes 4 passengers to orbit—a glimpse at private spaceflight’s future

The Inspiration4 crew will spend three days circling the planet on a mission that aims to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches with the Inspiration4 mission as night settles over NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Sept. 15, 2021.
Photograph by Michael Seeley, National Geographic

Just after 8 p.m. Eastern time, a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule rocketed into orbit from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center carrying humankind’s first entirely private crewed mission into orbit.

None of the Inspiration4 mission’s quartet of crew members is a professional astronaut. None have any previous spaceflight experience. Three of the passengers only learned they’d be visiting space earlier this year, when surprising announcements transformed their lives into a mélange of training and media spotlights.

Now the Inspiration4 crew is orbiting the planet, where they will enjoy three days of weightlessness, do a little science while they’re at it, and help raise $200 million for Memphis-based St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The crew is riding aboard a Dragon capsule named Resilience, and the flight will be entirely automated, allowing passengers with minimal flight experience to climb aboard and enjoy the ride.

Resilience previously ferried four NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, but this time, instead of docking with the station, the spacecraft will fly to an altitude of roughly 360 miles—some 80 miles higher than the ISS at its highest point. The crew will gaze at Earth through a custom glass dome that SpaceX recently installed in place of the spacecraft’s docking port. And later this week, if all goes well, Resilience will splash down off the Florida coast.

The flight marks the first time since 2009—when space shuttle Atlantis delivered astronauts to the Hubble Space Telescope for the final repair mission—that a crewed orbital flight hasn’t visited a space station.

“This is fascinating because it is a commercial mission on a commercial vehicle. It’s not going to a destination, none of the participants are government astronauts, nor have they been government astronauts,” says industry analyst Carissa Christensen, founder of BryceTech. “It really is a new phenomenon.”

Inspiration4 proponents say the mission marks a new era in human spaceflight—the start of an age where the gates to space open up to “ordinary” fliers. Netflix is airing a documentary that covers the mission as it unfolds. TIME magazine put the crew on the cover of a special issue about “The New Space Age.” Axios produced a multi-episode podcast that goes behind the scenes of the mission. And multiple companies are using Inspiration4 to promote their products. The theme behind all this messaging is that the flight is paving the way to the stars for the rest of humankind—but is it?

Some space industry experts say that the bar to entry for spaceflight is just as high as ever—it’s just that the gatekeepers are changing, along with the criteria used to choose who flies. As space becomes ever more commercialized, personal wealth plays a greater role in determining who gets to leave Earth. 

The Inspiration4 mission commander is billionaire Jared Isaacman, who chartered the SpaceX vehicle for an undisclosed amount. Joining him are St. Jude physician assistant and childhood cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux, the first person with a prosthesis to fly in space; Air Force veteran Chris Sembroski, whose seat was chosen by lottery; and internet contest winner Sian Proctor, a geoscientist who was nearly a member of NASA’s 2009 astronaut class.

“It’s putting a lot of this into the hands of the billionaires and millionaires of the world, who can afford either to fly on these flights, or to give seats away on flights that they’ve chartered,” says space historian Matt Shindell of Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “I think the real test is going to be what happens next.”

A new kind of ticket to space

Mission commander Isaacman, a 38-year-old who’s keen on adventure, made his fortune from Shift4 Payments, a payment processing company he founded in 2005 that now handles more than $200 billion in retail sales annually. He is also an accomplished pilot and the co-founder of Draken International—which trains military pilots and operates the world’s largest private fleet of fighter jets.

In October, Isaacman chartered the four-person SpaceX flight to orbit, telling Axios only that it cost less than $200 million. He then announced that the mission would double as a fundraising campaign for St. Jude, and that he wouldn’t be flying with his friends or family. The other three seats would be filled somewhat haphazardly.

Naming the three open spots Hope, Generosity, and Prosperity, Isaacman appointed himself to the Leadership chair and assumed the title of mission commander.

In January, St. Jude staff selected Arceneaux, a former patient turned employee, for the Hope seat. When she was 10, Arceneaux was diagnosed with bone cancer and had surgery to replace her left knee and insert a titanium rod into her damaged thighbone. She’s now the mission’s medical officer.

Sembroski, a data engineer who works for Lockheed Martin, will fill the Generosity seat—a prize awarded essentially randomly. After seeing a Super Bowl ad for the mission, Sembroski donated money to St. Jude, which entered him in a raffle. He didn’t win the lottery, but his friend did—and that friend gave Sembroski the ticket.

Proctor won the last seat, Prosperity, after entering a competition that required her to open a Shift4 Shop and make a short video (the more viral the better) describing why she wanted to go to space and what she would bring to the mission.

As this crew demonstrates, the idea of an “astronaut” is quickly changing, says science historian Jordan Bimm of the University of Chicago. Historically, space agencies recruited military pilots for the job, later adding scientists and other specialists to successive sets of new recruits. Now the wealthy elite can buy their own rides into space and distribute tickets however they see fit.

Prepping for flight

Normally, NASA’s astronaut crews are also carefully assembled, with mission managers working to craft a cohesive team that has the highest chance of successfully completing the mission. Then those crews train together for years.

Inspiration4 has followed a different path, with less than a year between Isaacman’s initial conversation with SpaceX, crew selection, and the mission launch. For about six months, the group trained rigorously, with exercises including a 30-hour flight simulation and enough practice with the automated Dragon to monitor the spacecraft’s health and hopefully survive any mishaps. The crew members also completed centrifuge training that simulates the g-forces of launch and landing, participated in zero-gravity practice flights, flew in fighter jets, and hiked to a high camp on Mt. Rainier.

Responding to a question about why the crew went through these motions for an otherwise automated flight, particularly the fighter jet formation flying, Isaacman tweeted: “Keeps you focused, works crew resource management and executing in a dynamic environment.” Plus, “pics look cool.”

Although spaceflight is often depicted as glamorous—and the images of the Inspiration4 crew are no exception—the experience is anything but glitzy, even if it costs millions of dollars. Traveling to space is really about suffering and sacrifice and survival, Shindell says—and he’s curious how the crew will respond to the reality of rocketing into orbit and sharing extremely close quarters for three days.

“Once you get into that capsule and commit to the mission, you’re going to experience all the g-forces, all of that isolation, the intimacy with the rest of your crewmates, and the terror of coming back through the atmosphere and crossing your fingers the whole way,” Shindell says.

Sharing those close quarters with the crew is a variety of cargo, including science experiments designed to investigate how humans adapt to spaceflight both mentally and physically, plus personal mementos, and items that will be auctioned off as part of the St. Jude charity fundraiser. The craft will also carry 66 pounds of citra and mosaic hops that mission representatives say “will be used to brew an out-of-this-world beer.”

“New space”

Tonight’s launch is the third this year to carry a crew of private passengers into space. The two earlier flights, launched in July by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, were suborbital joyrides that offered mere minutes of weightlessness.

But even this flight is hardly the first to deliver customers into orbit. Private citizens have been flying to the ISS since 2001, some paying as much as $52 million for the trip. Soon, more paying passengers will be making the journey to the orbiting space lab aboard both SpaceX capsules and Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Given the expansion of commercial flights, it’s easy to see why some in the space industry are talking about the opening of a new era. But others caution that it would be a mistake to say these crews are “ordinary” or representative of humanity at large. Isaacman is one of only 2,755 billionaires on Earth—a minuscule percentage of the population who can afford to charter a spacecraft.

Even the selection process for the other crew members was based on stringent criteria, or just plain luck. Sembroski was one of 72,000 people to enter the raffle—the odds of making it through NASA astronaut selection are better. And although Inspiration4’s crew is more diverse than many others, the next couple of private missions heading into orbit are populated predominantly by men, continuing a pattern that has resulted in women comprising roughly 11 percent of total astronauts. People of color account for even fewer spacefarers. (Proctor is only the fourth Black American woman to fly to orbit.)

Spaceflight is a rarified experience, Bimm says, and very much in the hands of the privileged. Whether these flights are truly heralding a new chapter in off-world exploration will become evident soon enough.

 “The proof is going to be in the pattern,” Bimm says. “What I would say to everyone who’s watching with an interest in space is: Don’t get too focused on this mission. Watch the next one, and the one after, and the one after.”

It’s possible that before private spaceflight really takes off, an accident may bring the nascent industry to its knees. If there’s anything we’ve learned from 60 years of human spaceflight, it’s that riding rockets is dangerous. Accidents are inevitable.

But the same is true for many adventure sports, and customers still line up for the chance to summit Mt. Everest—an endeavor that’s arguably just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than flying into orbit. 

“How much risk are we actually willing to take, once those risks really become visible?” Shindell asks. “It’s not a question of if a mishap will happen, but when it will happen, and how it will affect this new ecosystem of commercial space.”

Even if space eventually becomes accessible for everyone, it’s not clear how humankind might ultimately benefit from thousands of people briefly floating in orbit. Populating the moon or settling on Mars is a long way away from spending a few days hovering over Earth. And although many space travelers say they come back with a renewed appreciation for the fragility of our planet and a renewed commitment to improving conditions on Earth, critics argue that rocketing crews into space may not be the most efficient way to inspire change on the ground. 

"At the end of the day, what will be the value of sending more people to space?" Shindell asks. "I think we're going to actually need to have a cultural conversation about this, about what we're actually trying to build."

Even so, the University of Chicago’s Bimm says, Inspiration4 includes “some very inspiring people going to space, and I hope they have an awesome time and come back safely.”

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