This week is set to be a historic one in the annals of human spaceflight.
Within a 5-hour launch window beginning late Wednesday, SpaceX plans to launch the Inspiration4 mission, the first all civilian orbital spaceflight. It will be the first crewed orbital flight to launch without docking at a space station since the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission in 2009.
The crew of Inspiration4 won’t be the first private astronauts to fly to space on purely commercial launch vehicles and spacecraft, a distinction that goes to billionaire and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, or, depending on your definition of what counts as outer space, billionaire Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, in their July 11 and July 20 launches respectively.
But Inspiration4 will fly higher, faster, and longer than either Branson or Bezos, orbiting the Earth for three days as opposed to making short suborbital trips. Whatever your views on billionaires buying their astronaut wings and whether “democratizing” space is something truly possible, the Inspiration4 mission will mark the beginning of a new mode in spaceflight.
What is the Inspiration4 launch date and start time?
Inspiration4 will launch sometime during a 5-hour window beginning at 8:02 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, September 15.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, a version of which has flown NASA astronauts to the ISS, will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, in Florida.
How can you watch the Inspiration4 launch?
For those in the area willing to fork over $250 (plus tax), you can purchase the “Feel the Heat” viewing package and watch the launch in person from the Banana Creek Launch Viewing Area at Kennedy Space Center.
Inspiration4: Mission to Space Netflix series
If you want to see more Inspiration4 prior to — and after the launch — the Netflix docuseries Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space has you covered.
The series has been following the lead up to the mission, with the first two episodes dropping on September 6, the third and fourth episodes scheduled to drop just prior to the launch on September 13, and the fifth and final episode dropping sometime after the launch, near the end of the month.
What will happen during the Inspiration4 flight?
The Inspiration4 Crew Dragon capsule will orbit the Earth every 90 minutes for three days at an altitude of 335 miles, flying higher than the ISS does at 254 miles.
But for the first time, the Crew Dragon capsule will not be docking at the International Space Station. SpaceX has replaced the usual docking ring at the nose of the capsule with a large cupola made of a single piece of plexiglass glass. The cupola affords 360 degree views and the crew is expected to spend time taking them in, all while an external camera system captures images of their faces looking out at the planet and the blackness of space.
But Inspiration4 isn’t solely about sightseeing and the overview effect.
The capsule also carries 365 pounds of scientific equipment, and the crew will be conducting space medicine and health experiments on behalf of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine. The crew will also provide data and biological samples for researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine.
The space medicine experiments include testing an artificial intelligence-guided ultrasound scanning device and the collection and testing of blood samples in flight.
The Inspiration4 mission is also serving as a fundraiser for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, with a goal of raising $200 million for children fighting cancer and other diseases.
Who is the Inspiration4 crew? — The Inspiration4 crew are Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Hayley Arceneaux, and Chris Sembroski.
Isaacman is the billionaire founder of Shift4Payments, a PayPal-like payment processing company and the person bankrolling the Inspiration4 mission itself as well as having donated $100 million of his own money toward the St. Jude’s fundraiser. He is also a licensed pilot who flies fighter jets in his spare time and will serve as the Inspiration4 commander.
Arceneaux was selected to serve as the medical officer for the mission by St. Jude, where she works as a physician assistant. As a child, she was treated for bone cancer by the St. Jude organization and will be the first person with prosthetic limbs in space.
Proctor and Sembroski were selected for the final two seats on Inspiration4 through contests.
Proctor is a former professor of planetary science at South Mountain Community College in Arizona who won a contest on Isaacman’s e-commerce website Shift4Shop, where her Space2Inspire shop sold prints of her AfronautSpace art. Proctor will serve as the mission's pilot — although the Crew dragon capsule will fly autonomously, the crew did receive training from SpaceX in order to take over if something goes wrong.
Sembowski is a data engineer who will serve as the mission specialist. An unnamed friend of Sembroski won the seat on the mission through the St. Jude fundraising contest, but offered it to Smbroski, who accepted.
How much does the Inspiration4 flight cost?
Isaacman paid SpaceX an undisclosed sum for the Inspiration4 mission, but NASA’s paying around $55 million per seat on Crew Dragon missions to the ISS suggests Isaacman could have paid well more than $200 million.
When will the next civilian orbital flight happen?
While Inspiration4 will mark a first-of-its-kind mission — all civilian astronauts aboard private space vehicles funded with private money — a sophomore effort is not yet on the calendar.
SpaceX has not announced the dates of any future all-private citizen orbital missions aboard its vehicles, while the other commercial space companies, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, face major hurdles. Virgin Galactic has been grounded by the FAA over an undisclosed problem during Branson’s July 11 flight, while Blue Origin is likely months or years away from launching its orbital New Glenn vehicle.
Another space tourism company, Space Adventures, will launch Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and Production Assistant Yozo Hirano to the ISS in December, but that flight will be aboard a Soyuz spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome under the command of a Russian cosmonaut.
So while Inspiration4 may make history, it’s not clear when, or if, the era of fully private space adventure will really begin.