The space race was once decided by the wealth of nations, but now its future is determined by ultra wealthy individuals.
The first all-civilian crew bound for orbit has blasted off from the US state of Florida on board a SpaceX rocket ship, marking a new era in the space tourism business.
The spacecraft, carrying billionaire e-commerce executive Jared Isaacman and three less-wealthy private citizens he chose to join him, lifted off on Wednesday night (00:03 GMT Thursday) from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.
A SpaceX webcast of the launch showed Isaacman, 38, and his crewmates – Sian Proctor, 51, Hayley Arceneaux, 29, and Chris Sembroski, 42 – strapped into the pressurised cabin of their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, wearing their helmeted black-and-white flight suits.
The capsule roared into the Florida sky perched on top of one of the company’s reusable two-stage Falcon 9 rockets and fitted with a special observation dome in place of its usual docking hatch.
The flight, the first crewed mission headed to orbit without professional astronauts, is expected to last about three days from launch to splashdown in the Atlantic, mission officials said.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 16, 2021
Video clips posted on social media showed cheers erupting at the control tower when the Falcon 9 rocket separated from the Dragon capsule about 12 minutes into the flight.
It marked the debut flight of SpaceX owner Elon Musk’s new orbital tourism business, and a leap ahead of competitors also offering rides on rocket ships to customers willing to pay a small fortune for the exhilaration – and bragging rights – of space flights.
Isaacman has paid an undisclosed sum to fellow billionaire Musk for the journey. Time magazine has put the ticket price for all four seats at $200m.
The mission, called Inspiration4, was conceived by Isaacman mainly to raise awareness and support for one of his favourite causes, St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a leading paediatric cancer centre in Memphis, Tennessee.
Inspiration4 is aiming for an orbital altitude of 575km (360 miles) above Earth, higher than the International Space Station or Hubble Space Telescope, and the farthest any human will have flown from Earth since the end of NASA’s Apollo moon programme in 1972, according to SpaceX.
At that height, the Crew Dragon will circle the globe once every 90 minutes at a speed of some 17,000 miles per hour (27,360 km/h), or roughly 22 times the speed of sound.
Commercial space rivalry
Rival companies Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin inaugurated their own private astronaut services this summer, with their respective founding executives, billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, each going along for the ride.
Those suborbital flights, lasting a matter of minutes, were short hops compared with Inspiration4’s spaceflight profile.
SpaceX already ranks as the most well-established player in the burgeoning constellation of commercial rocket ventures, having launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA. Two of its Dragon capsules are docked there already.
The Inspiration4 crew has no part to play in flying the spacecraft, which is operated by ground-based flight teams and onboard guidance systems, even though two crew members are licenced pilots.
Isaacman, who is rated to fly commercial and military jets, has assumed the role of mission “commander,” while Proctor, a geoscientist and former NASA astronaut candidate, has been designated as the mission “pilot”.
Also in the crew are “chief medical officer” Arceneaux, a bone cancer survivor-turned-St Jude-physician’s assistant, and mission “specialist” Sembroski, a US Air Force veteran and aerospace data engineer.
The four crewmates have spent five months preparing rigorously, including altitude fitness, centrifuge (G-force), microgravity and simulator training, emergency drills, classroom work and medical exams.
Inspiration4 officials have said the mission is more than a joyride.
Once in orbit, the crew will perform a series of medical experiments with “potential applications for human health on Earth and during future spaceflights,” the group said in materials prepared for the media.
Biomedical data and biological samples, including ultrasound scans, will also be collected from crew members before, during and after the flight.