First All-Commercial Astronaut Crew Reaches Orbit Opening New Era of Spaceflight

First All-Commercial Astronaut Crew Reaches Orbit Opening New Era of Spaceflight

Four private citizens with no spaceflight experience or backing from government agencies are in orbit tonight, the first all-commercial space crew. Billionaire Jared Isaacman is paying SpaceX for the trip and taking three “ordinary” Americans along with him on the Inspiration4 mission and raising funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. With their arrival, 14 people are in space tonight, a record.

Isaacman and his companions Sian Proctor, Hayley Arceneaux and Chris Sembroski lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A on a SpaceX Crew Dragon at 8:02:56 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). They now are orbiting the Earth at 585 kilometers altitude, a bit higher than planned (575 km), and will splash down off the coast of Florida on Saturday.

Trevor Mahlman captured this stunning photo of the launch and shared it on Twitter.

Inspiration4 crew in orbit with their “zero-g indicator” floating above them, a toy golden retriever symbolic of the assistance dogs at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Screengrab.

SpaceX reuses the first stages of its Falcon 9 rockets and the Crew Dragon spacecraft. This was the third flight of this Falcon 9 first stage and it successfully returned to a landing on SpaceX’s autonomous drone ship Just Read the Instructions in the Atlantic Ocean. This Crew Dragon, named Resilience, was used for a NASA mission that returned to Earth in May.

Already in orbit is the Expedition 65 crew of three Americans, two Russians, and one each from Japan and France. They are aboard the U.S.-Russian-Japanese-European-Canadian International Space Station (ISS). Separately, a crew of three Chinese astronauts are on China’s Tianhe space station. At 14, it is the largest number of people in Earth orbit at any one time, surpassing the previous record of 13. The Chinese crew is getting ready to return to Earth after 3 months in space, however, so the number will soon drop to 10. They undocked this evening EDT.

Inspiration4 crew during weightlessness training on “zero-g” aircraft, L-R: Chris Sembroski, Hayley Arceneaux, Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor. Credit: Inspiration4 website.
This undated photo shows Chinese astronauts Nie Haisheng (C), Liu Boming (R) and Tang Hongbo, the Shenzhou-12 crew currently on the Tianhe space station. (Photo by Xu Bu/Xinhua)
International Space Station Expedition 65, L-R: Pyotr Dubrov (Russia), Shane Kimbrough (U.S.), Megan McArthur (U.S.), Thomas Pesquet (ESA/France), Aki Hoshide (Japan), Oleg Novitskiy (Russia), Mark Vande Hei (U.S.). Credit: NASA

Inspiration4 is completely different from the ISS and Tianhe missions and their professionally trained crews.

Inspiration4 is all commercial. The only government involvement is that SpaceX requires licenses from the FAA and the FCC, weather support from the U.S. Space Force 45th Weather Squadron, and, on a fully reimbursable basis, use of some NASA facilities and equipment. SpaceX already leases Launch Complex 39-A from NASA and uses it for many launches.

Isaacman, 38, is paying for all of this. He made his money developing an online payment system for restaurants and hotels, Shift4 Payments. Although he dropped out of high school, he later earned a degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is an experienced private pilot who flies military jets in airshows. Crew Dragon is entirely automated, but its occupants still must be trained to deal with contingencies and have someone in charge. Isaacman is Mission Commander and represents Leadership, one of four pillars he chose as a touchstone for the mission. The others are Hope, Prosperity, and Generosity.

He decided to use his spaceflight to raise money for St. Jude. He is personally contributing $100 million and hopes to raise another $100 million through contributions and other fundraising activities. He offered one of the seats to St. Jude to pick someone to represent the hospital. They chose Arceneaux, a bone cancer survivor who was a patient when she was 10.  At 29, she is now a physician’s assistant there and is the Inspiration4 Medical Officer. She is the youngest American in orbit and the first person in space with a prosthetic body part (replacing a femur bone in her leg). She represents Hope.

Proctor, 51, is a community college geology professor and artist who won her seat through an Inspiration4 competition by creating a business website using Shift4Shop’s software and a video explaining why she should get to fly. A private pilot who narrowly missed becoming a NASA astronaut, she is Mission Pilot. She is the fourth African American woman to fly into orbit and the first to pilot a space mission. She represents Prosperity.

Sembroski, 42, a data engineer at Lockheed Martin near Seattle, got his seat through an Inspiration4 lottery. He entered the lottery by contributing money to St. Jude, but didn’t win it himself. A friend did, but decided he could not make the trip and gave the ticket to Sembroski, who is now Inspiration4’s Mission Specialist. He represents Generosity.

Assuming all goes well for the rest of the mission, Inspiration4 will be remembered for opening a new era in commercial spaceflight. This crew of private astronauts is orbiting the Earth, a much more challenging journey than the suborbital flights offered by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket were developed through Public-Private Partnerships with NASA as the “commercial cargo” and “commercial crew” programs to resupply the ISS after the 2004 decision to terminate the space shuttle. NASA’s express intent was to not own the systems itself, but to purchase services from the private sector as just one of many customers for what it hopes will be a burgeoning space economy in low Earth orbit.

SpaceX already has demonstrated technical success. Three crews have been delivered to the ISS for NASA since May 2020 and another is scheduled for next month. The question has been whether it can close the business case by finding non-NASA customers.

At the moment, the answer appears to be yes.

Isaacman is paying an undisclosed amount of money for the three-day Inspiration4 flight and SpaceX has another mission getting ready to launch in January for Axiom Space. Ax-1 also will send four people into space, three of whom are paying a reported $55 million each. The fourth is an Axiom employee. Inspiration4 is orbiting Earth by itself, but Ax-1 will dock with the ISS for several days. SpaceX Senior Director of Human Spaceflight Programs Benji Reed said at a press conference yesterday that business is booming and the company has “a growing backlog of commercial missions.” He did not indicate how many of those will be free-flyers like Inspiration4 and how many will visit the ISS.

The taxonomy of what to call this type of astronaut is complicated. The Inspiration4 crew members call themselves the first “civilian” crew and many media outlets have picked it up, but this is not the first space crew with no military members as the word civilian implies. Are they non-professional astronauts, commercial astronauts, citizen astronauts, private astronauts, space tourists, space flight participants (the term used in the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments that sets forth the U.S. regulatory regime for these flights), or something else? It’s a nomenclature nightmare.

The point is that this is the first crew to go into orbit that did not pass through some sort of government process at least for training. Isaacman had the money, he decided how to choose his crewmates, and all were trained by SpaceX.

Non-professional astronauts are hardly new. As early as the 1970s, the Soviet Union and later the United States routinely launched personnel from outside their astronaut corps into orbit, but they all went through a government-based selection and training process. They were part of international collaborations, intergovernmental projects, scientific investigations, early space commercialization efforts, or the first attempt at making space accessible to the public. NASA suspended its space flight participant opportunities after Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe perished in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy, but flights of non-NASA astronauts resumed in 1990.

Dennis Tito, the first “space tourist” to visit ISS (in 2001), testifies to the House Science Committee on November 20, 2013 about his Inspiration Mars concept. Screengrab.

Flying non-professional astronauts to orbit transitioned into a business in the late 1990s with Russia’s space station Mir.  Japanese journalist Toyohiro Akiyama was the first paying customer to fly to Mir, sponsored by his company, Tokyo Broadcasting System. Russia continued flying paying passengers to ISS after Mir’s demise, initially against NASA’s objections. Seven wealthy individuals made eight flights (one flew twice) to ISS from 2001-2009 until NASA began purchasing all the extra Russian Soyuz seats as the space shuttle program came to an end and Soyuz was the only way to get to and from the ISS.

Now that Crew Dragon has restored NASA’s ability to launch its astronauts from American soil, Russia has resumed selling the extra Soyuz seats. Between Russia’s Roscosmos and SpaceX, the ISS will be a busy place for non-professional astronauts in coming months with a mixture of those who have come through a government-sponsored training program and those who have not.

Roscosmos will send filmmaker Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Peresild to ISS next month to shoot scenes for a movie, and, in December, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his production assistant Yozo Hirano. They are undergoing government-sponsored training and the Soyuz rocket and spacecraft are government-owned.

SpaceX’s Ax-1 mission has four citizen astronauts from the United States, Canada and Israel, although commander Michael López-Alegria is a veteran of NASA’s astronaut program who has made four spaceflights already, including to the ISS, and holds the record for the most spacewalks (10) by a U.S. astronaut.

How — and whether — to distinguish between astronauts who go into orbit like Inspiration4 versus those on suborbital flights, those who get government training and those who do not, those with no prior space experience and those who are veterans of government programs but now work for the private sector, those who are company employees doing their job and those along for the thrill, those who are rich enough to buy their tickets and those lucky enough to be invited along at someone else’s expense, those who are awarded astronaut “wings” by a government agency versus the company that flew them to space, can be a conundrum. The term “space tourist” was coined somewhat derogatorily to refer to rich people who could afford a ticket to space but otherwise brought no value to the mission. Is Isaacman a tourist, or does the fact that he’s raising money for St. Jude give him a different stature?

The FAA regulates the U.S. commercial human spaceflight business under the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments (CSLAA) as amended by the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA). On July 20, 2021, it updated its rules as to who gets FAA commercial astronaut wings. By law, the FAA recognizes only three types of commercial space travellers: “crew,” “space flight participants,” and “government astronauts.”

The Association of Space Explorers, open for membership to anyone who has flown into space, is taking an egalitarian approach. It created its own pins for anyone verified to have made the trip to space on either a suborbital or orbital mission.

The Association of Space Explorers’ Universal Astronaut Insignia for suborbital (left) and orbital (right) spaceflight. Credt: Association of Space Explorers

The 1968 U.N. Astronaut Rescue and Return Agreement, a treaty with 98 signatories including all the major spacefaring countries, simply refers to “personnel of a spacecraft.”

Flying to space, for minutes, days, weeks or forever, is a cherished ambition for many. Alan Ladwig, who ran NASA’s space flight participant program in the 1980s, published a book about the history of those who have sought to fulfill their space aspirations: See You in Orbit? Our Dream of Spaceflight.

He and others envision the day when space travel is as accessible and pervasive as airline travel and such distinctions will be meaningless. That seems a long way off, but Inspiration4 may be the bellwether of what’s to come, and not just in Earth orbit. Maezawa, another billionaire who made his money in Japan’s fashion industry, may be visiting ISS in December, but already has purchased a trip around the Moon on SpaceX’s Starship notionally in 2023. He is in the process choosing who he will take along for the ride.

Commercial space travel is still the playground of the rich, but some of them, at least, are benefactors expanding opportunities for others.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), Chair, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

From a policy perspective, Congress and the FAA will be watching how it all unfolds. Until 2023, under CSLAA the FAA is prohibited from requiring commercial human space flight companies to do anything more than obtain “informed consent” from their passengers indicating they understand and accept the risks. The FAA’s role is only to protect the safety of the uninvolved public. Congress did not want a heavy hand of regulation to stifle this emerging market. The “moratorium” on new regulations was originally set at 8 years, but it has taken much longer than expected for commercial human spaceflights to begin so was extended several times to the new deadline of 2023.

Policymakers will have their eyes on these flights to see if any new regulations are needed. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that oversees most FAA activities, makes no secret of his disdain for billionaires who take joy rides to space and his intent to reform how the FAA regulates commercial space flight. The FAA is currently investigating Branson’s July 11 SpaceShipTwo flight for violating FAA airspace restrictions. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has jurisdiction over the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, but has not weighed in on these issues recently.

The regulatory landscape will evolve over time.  Right now, the focus is the Inspiration4 crew and getting them safely back on terra firma in three days time.


This story has been updated.

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