CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The moment private companies, like SpaceX, have been working toward for nearly two decades is coming into focus.
Inspiration4, the launch of the first all-civilian mission scheduled for Sept. 15, is the penultimate step before regular people -- not billionaires or professional astronauts -- can have regular access to low-Earth orbit. OK, maybe there are a few more steps, but this launch from Kennedy Space Center is the first of its kind for a number of reasons.
Axios space writer Miriam Kramer and Inspiration4 mission photographer John Kraus joined WKMG’s podcast Space Curious to talk about why this mission is unique and how the crew has been preparing for liftoff.
Who is going and how were they chosen?
A physician’s assistant, an engineer and an educator will join Shfit4Payment CEO Jared Isaacman as the first passengers on SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon spaceflight without a NASA astronaut onboard.
Isaacman, 38, chartered the Crew Dragon flight, and when he learned it would be the first all-civilian spaceflight, he decided to make sure the people he brought along with him were equally as important.
“He’s always been a huge fan of SpaceX and of Elon, so he actually was wanting to invest in SpaceX. That was how he ended up on the phone with them,” Miriam Kramer, Axios space reporter, recalled. “He basically, like, offhandedly commented, ‘Oh, yeah, you know, I might be a client one day,’ like, joking that he would go to space and then they were like, ‘Oh, OK,’ and put him in touch with the human spaceflight program. And it’s, that’s sort of how the story starts like that. That call, that joke, kind of led to this whole thing.”
Each of the four seats on board represents a different virtue. As the mission commander, Isaacman’s seat is leadership.
Next, Hayley Arceneaux, a physician with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, was chosen to represent hope. Arceneaux was diagnosed with bone cancer at 10 and went to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for treatment. Now, at 29, she will now be the youngest person to fly to orbital space and the first in orbit with a prosthetic.
Arceneaux told CBS News that the crew plans to call St. Jude patients while they are in space.
“They’re going to see somebody that has been in their shoes who also fought childhood cancer can also go to space, and I think it’s going to show them what they’re capable of,” she said.
The final two seats were determined by a nationwide contest and essentially a raffle of people who donated to St. Jude.
After the contest deadline closed, a panel of judges selected the prosperity seat.
Sian Proctor, a college professor from Arizona, science communicator, artist and once aspiring NASA astronaut, was selected by the panel to represent prosperity.
“She actually made it to sort of one of the final rounds for of NASA astronauts election and was not chosen,” Kramer said of Proctor. “And she’s always had this dream of becoming an astronaut. And, you know, private spaceflight to her is sort of the way that you get there now.”
Finally, Chris Sembroski, an aerospace engineer and Air Force veteran, was chosen, purely by chance, to represent generosity.
Kramer describes him as “the guy who got the golden ticket.” After about 70,000 people entered to win the seat following a Super Bowl advertisement in February 2021, Sembroski’s friend was chosen but for whatever reason, he couldn’t go and offered the ticket to the father of two, who happens to be a big space nerd. So it all worked out.
SpaceX will launch a Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft from Florida. This Crew Dragon has previously flown four astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
The capsule would normally have a docking ring near the nose of the spacecraft but because Inspiration4 will orbit the Earth for three days and not dock at the ISS, SpaceX created a special cupola for the crew that will be hidden under the nosecone until after it’s in orbit. The special bubble-shaped window was inspired by the space station cupola which offers spectacular views of Earth and the darkness of space.
Side note: the bathroom is actually right below the cupola so when they “gotta go,” the view will be amazing.
Automation is key
The Dragon spacecraft is fully automated. From launch to landing, the passengers should just be able to sit back and enjoy the ride of a lifetime. However, in the event, something should happen, the crew can manually take over operating the spacecraft. Its systems are operated by touchscreens that look like giant iPads. There are some actual buttons, but for the most part it’s fully touchscreen. And the spacecraft can be maneuvered in space by a joystick-like control. Driving a spacecraft is not like driving a car, instead of right or left, forward and backward, the spacecraft uses pitch, yaw and roll, similar to an aircraft but a lot trickier because of no gravity.
Inspiration 4 photographer John Kraus said the crew and their families have faith in SpaceX to bring them all home safely. The SpaceX rocket booster and the spacecraft have both launched and landed successfully before.
“I think they’re gonna do the job perfectly,” Kraus said. “But spaceflight is risky. It’s new. When you think about the grand scheme of humans we’ve only been going to space for not too long. But I’ve never befriended a payload. I’ve never become friends with Starlink satellites or GPS satellites. But I’ve become friends with these four people. So it’s definitely personal for me to see them launch.”
Again, none of the four crew members are professional astronauts and while they have now trained for about seven months in the event something does go wrong, the Dragon spacecraft is fully automated. This is why the mission is possible in the first place. Even when NASA astronauts fly in Dragon, the docking and landing are fully automated.
Weather will be extra tricky
It’s Florida and almost peak hurricane season, so yes, the weather will likely be an issue as SpaceX attempts to get this rocket off the ground. However, it’s slightly more complicated for two reasons.
One: SpaceX and launch weather officers with the 45th Space Wing will not only be considering the weather around Kennedy Space Center launch pad 39A but also the conditions in the Atlantic Ocean in the event of an emergency abort during launch. Two: They also must factor in the landing conditions for three days out when the capsule returns to Earth splashing down on either Florida coast.
Weather officers will be monitoring wave height, rain, wind, storms and just about any other curveball Mother Nature might throw to make sure the crew and the recovery teams will be safe when the capsule is retrieved at sea.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and other space company founders have spoken for years about eventually having thousands of people working and living in space. But this isn’t just a pie in the sky kind of moment for Musk who wants to one day have a colony living on Mars. The implication is far bigger.
“These are big visions that will require flying hundreds, if not thousands of people to space one day, and they’re not all going to be trained professional NASA astronauts, they have to be ordinary folks,” Kramer explains. “This is sort of the first step in that process, like actually sending a fully civilian crew to orbit, figuring out how to train them figuring out how the capsule works for a group of folks that haven’t been working toward this for decades.”
There are still, mostly financial, barriers to space but with private companies offering more options, it also opens access to researchers, universities and students.
As Time Magazine editor Jeffery Kluger put it in the Inspiration4 Netflix documentary: “These people are you and me and they will kick the doors open to space for the rest of us.”
Space Curious” is a podcast from WKMG and Graham Media Group that answers your intergalactic questions. Hosted by space reporter Emilee Speck, each episode is designed to inspire everyone, from the space curious to the space fanatics.