First All-Commercial Orbital Space Crew Ready to Go

First All-Commercial Orbital Space Crew Ready to Go

The first crew of entirely commercial astronauts headed to Earth orbit is raring to go. Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski, who did not even know each other a year ago, are about to spend three days orbiting the Earth together and could not be more excited. Launch is scheduled for 8:02 pm ET tomorrow, weather permitting.  SpaceX will livestream the launch.

Until now, people going to Earth orbit and beyond have been sponsored by governments. Yes, some were ordinary citizens like Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe and Hughes Aircraft engineer Greg Jarvis who perished in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger accident and others like them who flew on other NASA or Russian space missions, but they went through some level of government selection and training.

Not so for the crew of Inspiration4.

Billionnaire Isaacman, who made most of his money developing an electronic payment system for hotels and restaurants, Shift4 Payments, is paying Elon Musk’s SpaceX to take him and three others to orbit.

He designed the selection process for his companions and chose four values for them to represent as he uses the mission to fundraise for St. Jude Chldren’s Research Hospital. He is “Leadership.” Arceneaux, a survivor of childhood cancer who now works as a physician’s assistant at St. Jude where she was a patient at age 10, is “Hope.” Sian Proctor, a geology professor at an Arizona community college and artist who once came very close to being selected as a NASA astronaut, is “Prosperity” after winning an Inspiration4 competition for setting up a Shift4 business website and creating a video explaining why she should get to fly. Chris Sembroski, a data engineer, is “Generosity.” This seat was chosen through a lottery of people who contributed to St. Jude through an Inspiration4 website. He contributed, but did not win that lottery. A friend of his did, but decided he could not make the trip and gave the ticket to Sembroski, so the generosity was both Sembroski’s and his friend’s.

Isaacman, 38, is commander. Proctor, 51, a private pilot, will be in the pilot’s seat. She points out she is only the fourth African American woman to fly in space and the first to pilot a space mission. Arceneaux, 29, is medical officer. Sembroski, 42, is mission specialist.

Inspiration4 crew, clockwise from top: Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor. Credit: John Kraus @johnkrausphotos via Twitter

The spacecraft operates autonomously, but a lot of training is required nonetheless to launch, coexist in cramped confines in space for three days, and splash down in the ocean, all while ready to cope with emergencies.

The four have been training together in SpaceX simulators and through team-building exercises like mountain climbing and flying in jets. Isaacman is a private pilot who flies jet fighters in airshows and owns a Russian MIG-29. He and some of his airshow buddies have spent recent days flying the crew around Kennedy Space Center where SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft sit on Launch Complex 39A awaiting launch tomorrow. SpaceX leases the launch complex from NASA.

At a prelaunch press conference this afternoon, they were asked if they had any jitters. Isaacman said no. Arceneaux said only the good kind. Proctor said she was worried this day would never come — “let’s do it.” Sembroski said he has “no worries, no concerns” but perhaps some stage fright because he will sing and play the ukulele on orbit.

It was SpaceX’s Benji Reed, Senior Director of Human Spaceflight Programs, who confessed to having “goosebumps” thinking about how far they all had come in just 9 months since Isaacman and Musk signed the deal. Arceneaux was chosen by St. Jude in January. Proctor and Sembroski found out they made the cut at the end of March.

The July suborbital flights of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos on their suborbital systems, SpaceShipTwo and New Shepard, set up a narrative that the new era of commercial spaceflight is only for the super-wealthy. That is true to some extent. Someone paid $28 million to win an auction to fly with Bezos though in the end he or she did not make the flight and a Dutch teenager flew instead, courtesy of his wealthy father.

Isaacman is paying an undisclosed amount for the four seats on Inspiration4, but three of the four passengers on another SpaceX commercial orbital spaceflight for Axiom Space scheduled for January reportedly are paying $55 million each (the fourth is an Axiom employee).

Isaacman is the only rich guy on this flight, however. Arceneaux, Proctor and Sembroski are “ordinary” citizens who may indeed herald the long-awaited era of the “democratization” of space where anyone can make the trip to space and see Earth from a new vantage point. NASA’s space shuttle once was expected to be the vehicle that ushered in that new paradigm, but the Challenger tragedy proved once again that flying into space is a very risky endeavor.

With all the excitement about Inspiration4, and SpaceX’s 100 percent successful track record in launching people into space on three crewed missions so far, it may be easy to become complacent about risk, as happened with the space shuttle.

One significant difference this time is that NASA is not in charge of this launch. SpaceX owns the spacecraft and the rocket and leases the launch pad from NASA.  The FAA regulates commercial space launches and reentries, but by law it is limited to the protection of public safety, not the safety of the occupants of the spacecraft. The 2004 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments require only that they provide their “informed consent” that they understand the risks and are willing to take them. The law prohibits the FAA from making any other regulations until at least 2023, a “learning period” during which the government may have only a light hand of regulation so as not to deter a nascent market sector.

The hope certainly is that all will go perfectly for this mission. SpaceX’s Reed said today that the company is continuing to “listen to the hardware” and “listen to the data” as well as launch and splashdown weather forecasts to make sure everything is as safe as it can be before proceeding to launch.

If anything goes awry, however, it will be a new experience for the American public to react to a purely commercial spaceflight where SpaceX, not the government, is responsible for investigating what went wrong other than any potential impact on public safety. NASA likely would be consulted because the same system is used for NASA astronauts. A NASA mission, Crew-3, is scheduled for October 31. But it would not be in the driver’s seat as it was after the other three U.S. human spaceflight fatalites: the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, Challenger, and the 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident.

Assuming all goes well, though, the next all-commercial crew will fly just four months from now. Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission is scheduled for January, with former NASA astronaut, now Axiom Vice President of Business Development, Michael López-Alegria in the commander’s seat accompanied by three super-wealthy men from the United States, Canada and Israel. They not only will go into orbit, but will spend several days aboard the International Space Station.

Reed said the Crew Dragon manifest is getting busier by the minute with a “growing backlog of commercial missions.”

That is what NASA intended with the commercial crew program — that NASA would be just one of many customers of systems owned and operated by the private sector. NASA has embraced these public-private partnerships in its human and robotic space programs in Earth orbit and beyond. If all goes well on this mission, the era of all-commercial human orbital spaceflight may finally be here.

SpaceX will livestream the launch on its website. The time, 8:02 pm ET, is the opening of a 5-hour launch window, so the exact launch time will be dependent on weather and if there are any technical issues at the last minute that must be overcome. If the launch has to be delayed for any reason, they can try again the next day.

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