As One Commercial Space Mission Ends, Another Readies for Launch–With a Movie Crew

As One Commercial Space Mission Ends, Another Readies for Launch–With a Movie Crew

Four non-professional astronauts splashed down in the Atlantic ocean this evening almost exactly three days after they blasted off on the first all-commercial orbital space mission. Jared Isaacman and his Inspiration4 companions are not the first “ordinary people” in space. Russia opened the door to private astronauts decades ago and is getting ready for another milestone — sending a film director and actress to shoot scenes in space next month.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft with its Inspiration4 crew splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida at 7:06 pm EDT this evening. Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Hayley Arceneaux and Chris Sembroski spent three days minus an hour orbiting Earth after launching on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from a launch pad SpaceX leases from NASA at Kennedy Space Center, FL at 8:02 pm ET September 15.

Inspiration4 Crew Dragon capsule in the Atlantic Ocean after a successful splashdown at 7:06 pm ET September 18. A SpaceX support boat is alongside to get the capsule ready to be hoisted onto the recovery boat where the crew will exit the spacecraft.   Screengrab.

The key is that everything is SpaceX’s. This is not a NASA mission. Tech billionaire Isaacman is paying an undisclosed amount of money to Elon Musk’s SpaceX to send him and his companions into Earth orbit.

Arceneaux, 29, a physician’s assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital where she was a bone cancer patient at the age of 10, performed a variety of medical experiments. She is the Medical Officer. Sembroski, 42, a data engineer, is the Mission Specialist and played the ukulele. Proctor, 51, a geology professor, private pilot, and artist who once came very close to being selected for the NASA astronaut corps, spent her time creating artwork when not performing her duties as Mission Pilot. Isaacman, 38, who is footing the bill and using the mission to raise money for St. Jude, kept busy as Mission Commander.

L-R: Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux. Credit: Inspiration4 website.

All four spent a lot of time looking out into space and down at Earth through a special window called a cupola in the spacecraft’s hatch, the largest window ever in space.  Isaacman has a deal with Netflix and Time to chronicle the mission, so very little information has been shared with the public, but today SpaceX tweeted photos of the crew in the cupola taken by a camera with an exterior view. This one of Arceneaux won particular acclaim on Twitter.


They were all smiles after they splashed down and were brought aboard SpaceX’s recovery ship GO Searcher, waving to the cameras when the side hatch opened.

Isaacman’s goal was to raise $200 million for St. Jude, of which he contributed $100 million himself.  The total stood at $160 million immediately after splashdown, but soon thereafter Musk tweeted “count me in for $50M,” putting them over the top.

Splashdown marks the end of this first all-commercial spaceflight, but today is just the beginning of a renewed era of non-professional astronauts getting their chance to see Earth from orbit. And in the not too distant future, the Moon.

People from outside the official astronaut and cosmonaut corps of U.S. and Soviet/Russian governments have been making space trips since the 1970s. The first paying passenger was journalist Toyohiro Akiyama of the Tokyo Broadcasting System who flew to Russia’s space station Mir in 1990.

But it was Russia’s 2001 decision to allow wealthy “space tourists” to buy tickets for week-long excursions on the International Space Station (ISS) that many view as the beginning of the first era of commercial space travel for the public rather than professionals. NASA initially opposed the idea, but ultimately all the ISS partners acquiesced.

Russia hosted seven ISS space tourists on eight flights (one person flew twice) between 2001 and 2009 before NASA bought all the extra Soyuz seats to fly its own astronauts after the space shuttle was terminated and Soyuz was the only way to get to and from ISS.

With SpaceX’s Crew Dragon now operational, NASA does not need Soyuz and Russia resumed sales to others and it seems to be trying to outdo U.S. commercial space efforts. Rumors that Tom Cruise would fly to ISS on a Crew Dragon to film scenes for a movie quickly led to Russia abruptly announcing that a Russian film crew would do the same thing and put it on a fast track.

Consequently, on October 5 Soyuz MS-19 will deliver one professional cosmonaut, Anton Shkaplerov, plus film director Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Peresild to ISS. She portrays a doctor that must journey into space to tend to an ill cosmonaut in a movie entitled The Challenge.

Although a lot of filming has been done in space already, especially on the space shuttle and ISS for IMAX films that are shown in theaters, this is the first time scenes are being shot for a fictional movie, another milestone in the commercialization of space.

No announcement has yet been made about Tom Cruise actually flying to ISS, but CBS news reported today that the Inspiration4 crew spoke with him from orbit.

On December 8, Russia will launch two more space tourists to ISS on Soyuz MS-20. In this case, it is Japanese billionaire Yusaka Maezawa and his producer Yozo Hirano. Maezawa made news three years ago by buying all the seats on the first flight of Musk’s Starship around the Moon, notionally in 2023.  Maezawa is in the process of choosing who he will take with him. His journey to the ISS will give him a bit of spaceflight experience before embarking on what will be an even more exciting expedition.

NASA now embraces the idea of tourists on ISS and even has a pricing policy for how much they must reimburse the government for use of the ISS facilities. That does not apply to Inspiration4 since it did not visit the ISS.

The first U.S. private mission to ISS is scheduled for January, also on a SpaceX Crew Dragon. Axiom Space, which is building a module to attach to ISS that later will separate and become a free-flying space station on its own, is sponsoring the mission, Ax-1. The four-person crew is composed of three wealthy men (one each from the United States, Israel, and Canada) and former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegria, now Axiom’s Vice President of Business Development.

That makes four space missions composed mostly of non-professional astronauts in five months, a sea-change in who gets a chance to fly to orbit.

Those who cannot afford a ride to orbit or get an invitation from someone who can have an option for suborbital flights with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Virgin Galactic recently raised its price from $250,000 to $450,000 per ticket and Blue Origin still hasn’t named a price.

It’s clear that access to space by non-professional astronauts remains limited to the wealthy and those they choose to take with them, but it is at least a step towards opening the cosmos to more of Earth’s inhabitants.

This article has been updated.

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