SpaceX's 'All-Civilian' Crew Represents the Dawn of a Second Space Age

Alan Boyle, GeekWire

GeekWire contributing editor Alan Boyle is an award-winning science writer and veteran space reporter. Formerly of NBCNews.com, he is the author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference." Follow him via CosmicLog.com, on Twitter @b0yle, and on Facebook and MeWe.

SpaceX's 'All-Civilian' Crew Represents the Dawn of a Second Space Age

Are they space tourists? Citizen spacefliers? All-civilian astronauts? Whatever you call them, the four teammates who are due to go into orbit today in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule require creating a new category.

"I know there's controversy over what you should be called," retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly told the foursome today in a tweet. "But when you strap into a rocket and launch into orbit, you can call yourself anything you want: astronot, astronut, astronaut — whatever."


There's Jared Isaacman, the billiionaire CEO of Shift4 Payments, who's paying for the launch and is the mission commander … Hayley Arceneaux, the 29-year-old cancer survivor who's due to become the youngest American to go into space … Sian Proctor, the professor and artist who'll back up Isaacman as America's first Black space pilot.

And then there's Chris Sembroski, a former Air Force missile technician and Lockheed Martin engineer from Everett, Wash. Sembroski got his chance to train for the mission and climb onboard the Dragon when an old college buddy of his won a charity sweepstakes — and then gave the reservation to him.

"I think that just really puts me in a very special spot, where not only do I feel very lucky to be here, but I have a huge responsibility to pay that forward," Sembroski said during a pre-launch briefing.

Liftoff atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is set for 8:02 p.m. ET (5:02 p.m. PT) from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. But although the three-day Inspiration4 mission starts out from a NASA-owned facility, the space agency has minimal involvement.

This will be the first non-governmental crewed flight to orbit, and the first crewed SpaceX flight to pass up going to the International Space Station. Instead, the foursome will go into an orbit higher than the space station — higher than humans have flown since the space shuttle missions to the Hubble Space Telescope.

During the flight, Isaacman and his crew will conduct science experiments, teach classes from space and conduct auctions and other charity activities aimed at benefiting St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Sembroski will even play a tune on his ukulele, although he admitted to "a little bit of stage fright." If all goes according to plan, the Dragon will descend to a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday.

Streaming coverage of the countdown, launch and in-space operations is due to begin about four hours before launch via SpaceX's website.

On one level, the Inspiration4 mission is a billionaire's attempt to turn the crew's personal space adventures into a fund-raising campaign for St. Jude. Isaacman's objective is to raise $200 million for the hospital, and he's already committed $100 million of his own money. That's on top of what he's paying SpaceX: Although Isaacman isn't saying how much the launch is costing, the fare is thought to be in excess of $100 million (but not as high as $200 million).

On another level, the first essentially non-governmental, "all-civilian" flight to orbit is meant to blaze a trail for wider access to space — not just by trained test pilots and other professional astronauts, but by regular folks.

And on yet another level, Inspiration4 could be seen as one more not-so-small step toward SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's vision of establishing beachheads for humanity on other worlds.

"This is the organization that is going to, in large part, get us to the moon, certainly with eyes toward Mars, right?" Isaacman said. "And there are a lot of risks on a six-month journey like that. So it's better to start taking some steps now, in a very well thought-out, mitigated way, so that we can continue to reach toward those extraordinary goals, like making life multiplanetary."

For all those reasons, one of Inspiration4's mission managers, Todd "Leif" Ericson, argues that the flight could mark the true beginning of a second space age. And Ericson isn't some starry-eyed space geek: He's a former Air Force test pilot who's also a veteran of Virgin Galactic's suborbital space program.

Ericson talked about the mission and its significance during an interview on the eve of the launch. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:

Ericson: "This mission is a great example of what a commercial entity like SpaceX is capable of doing on short notice. Dragon had never been higher than ISS, at about 420 kilometers, and we told them that for this mission, we want to do something significant. We want to start taking those first steps out toward becoming an interplanetary species — which means we've got to start working our way above low Earth orbit. They went through the analysis, and we were able to come up with an orbital altitude of 575 kilometers. That is the highest humans have been since, really, Apollo — save two missions, which are basically the shuttle's Hubble deployment and repair missions. That's a pretty significant thing.

"And then, SpaceX decided to create this cupola for viewing the Earth and deep space. The time from inception to flight-ready hardware was basically six months. Try to do that on a government contract!"

GeekWire: Were there any things that needed to be changed in terms of the training because this is a non-NASA mission?

Ericson: "That's a huge theme for everybody on this mission. We're building on the backs of giants. All that NASA has done is being leveraged for this. The training is as intensive as what any NASA crew would get for flying Dragon, but it's tailored to our mission. We're not going to the ISS, so there's no requirement for worrying about proximity operations or docking, but there are things like the cupola and mitigating the risks there."

GeekWire: Everybody wants to know how it's been for non-professional astronauts to go through that training, and what this portends for the future.

Ericson: "I've been very interested in that myself. I think this mission marks the dawn of what I'd call the second space age. It's the space age where space is accessible, no longer just for nation states, but for corporations and normal individuals. Up to this time, NASA has had the luxury of being able to hand-select the best of the best, physically and academically. But the next generation is going to require us to put up a lot more than the 600 people we've put in orbit over the last 50-plus years.

"You need to figure out how average people fare in space. What restrictions are really there? It's easy for a medical team to put in stringent requirements when you've got the world's population to pick from. But as you start opening that aperture and allowing more and more people to come, you surely can't be as selective. And I think there are also some interesting benefits when you start opening that aperture."

GeekWire: You get people with different perspectives.

Ericson: "Right. Up to this point, it's been a lot of test pilots, scientists and engineers. It's been a very left brain-focused thing. But from the perspective of benefiting humanity, how do we do this in a way that opens up other aspects that are less tangible? I think those aspects are equally important, and in some ways more important, to this goal of exploration and becoming an interplanetary species."

GeekWire: I wanted to ask about your own experience going through the mission — for example, being in a Netflix documentary series. I'm betting that's a bit more than you would have bargained for.

Ericson: "Here's what I think is so wonderful about this mission: It's the emphasis on St. Jude's. Jared has said many times that it's one thing to go to space and have the opportunity to do what he's doing. There are so many amazing things are going to happen because of that. But if we do that without remembering what's going on back here on Earth, we've missed the boat. Jared's 'bumper sticker' is, "Hey, if we can go to space, we need to be able to cure childhood cancer back here on Earth and take care of some of these other problems.'

"I think that's what's been so cool about being part of this: the outward focus. Jared is not focusing this on himself. He doesn't want to, because he recognizes that's not the important part. You know, with the flights of Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, there's been this focus on 'billionaires in space.' And there's been kind of a negative connotation to that. I hope that the Netflix documentary highlights the fact that this is really about much more than just four people going into space. If you look back at the history of humankind, we've only advanced because we've taken the time and the capital to go beyond where we've gone before.

"Space exploration is expensive, right? Initially, it's going to take people like Jared, who have the financial means to do so, to start pushing that envelope. Aviation is a great example. It initially followed a very similar course, right between World War I and World War II. The industry transitioned from being essentially the domain of government to finding civil applications. This thing that was a military instrument can now benefit humankind as a whole. That's where I think we're at with space travel right now.

"I applaud guys like Jared who are willing to take the resources that they've worked hard to obtain and put them toward something that will ultimately benefit all of humankind. I think it's a very noble endeavor, and I'd hate for that to get lost in the narrative. It's so easy to just chalk it up as a 'billionaire joyride to space,' and as you know, this is so much more than that.”

This story originally appeared on GeekWire.

🏰 Disney's Epic Investment Stands Out Amidst Gaming Industry Layoffs

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

🔦 Spotlight

In the midst of widespread gaming industry layoffs, a glimmer of positive news emerges as Disney announces a significant move: a $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games. 🏰💰🐭

Image Source: Disney

Disney's $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games, disclosed late Wednesday, signals a strategic alignment aimed at expanding the success of "Fortnite." The deal enhances Epic's growth prospects after financial setbacks, including layoffs, and strengthens the partnership between the two companies. With Disney gaining a larger equity stake in Epic, the collaboration will broaden the integration of beloved Disney franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and Avatar into the game, potentially boosting its appeal and longevity. This significant investment underscores Disney's commitment to interactive entertainment and signifies a shift towards games as a primary revenue stream, aligning with the growing trend of digital engagement among younger demographics. Moreover, the potential for crossover sales of physical Disney products within "Fortnite" and the exploration of new content distribution channels are just some of the opportunities arising from this partnership.

For LA tech, the Disney-Epic Games partnership represents a validation of the region's burgeoning tech and gaming ecosystem. The substantial investment in Epic, who maintains a large Los Angeles office with 1,000+ employees (according to LinkedIn), reflects confidence in the LA’s talent pool and innovation potential. Additionally, this partnership between two industry giants fosters an environment for further collaboration, investment, and growth within LA's tech sector. As Disney and Epic Games deepen their ties and explore new avenues for content integration and distribution, it not only elevates the prominence of LA as a tech hub but also stimulates economic growth and job creation in the region. This partnership highlights LA's unique position as a hub where technology and entertainment converge. With its ability to integrate diverse industries, LA is driving innovation and expansion in digital entertainment. 🚀💸🎮

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

  • ProducePay, a financing and marketplace platform for the fresh produce market, raised a $38M Series D led by Syngenta Group Ventures joined by Commonfund, Highgate Private Equity, G2 Venture Partners, Anterra Capital, Astanor Ventures, Endeavor8, Avenue Venture Opportunities, Avenue Sustainable Solutions, and Red Bear Angels. - learn more
  • Blush, an invite-only dating app that drives users to local businesses on dates, raised a $7M Seed Round from individuals like Naval Ravikant. - learn more
  • Mogul, a startup founded last year that provides an overview of an artist's royalty earnings and identifies areas where money is owed but has not yet been collected, raised a $1.9 million seed round from Wonder Ventures, United Talent Agency, AmplifyLA, and Creator Partners. - learn more
  • Avnos, a hybrid direct air capture startup, raised a $36M Series A led by NextEra Energy and joined by Safran Corporate Ventures, Shell Ventures, Envisioning Partners, and Rusheen Capital Management. - learn more
  • AI.fashion, startup whose mission is to help retailers enhance the online shopping experience by providing consumers with virtual try-ons and personalized fashion recommendations, raised a $3.6M Seed Round led by Neo. - learn more
  • Suma Wealth, startup that aims to demystify financial topics and provide culturally relevant content, virtual experiences, and resources to help Latino users navigate financial challenges and opportunities, raised a $2.2M Seed Round . Radicle Impact led, and was joined by Vamos Ventures, OVO fund and the American Heart Association Impact Fund. - learn more
  • 222, a startup that helps users discover their city and meet new people through unique social experiences, raised a $2.5M Seed Round. Investors included 1517 Fund, General Catalyst, Best Nights VC, Scrum Ventures, and Upfront Ventures. - learn more
  • LimaCharlie, a security operations cloud platform, raised a $10.2M Series A led by Sands Capital. - learn more
  • Polycam, an app that uses a smartphone’s sensors to capture 3D scans of objects, raised an $18M Series A co-led by Left Lane Capital and Adjacent, and joined by Adobe Ventures and individuals like Chad Hurley and Shaun Maguire. -learn more.

LA Venture Funds

Actively Raising

  • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
  • CZero, a startup building software to decarbonize logistics for logistics businesses and goods business through a vetted marketplace and optimization software. - learn more
  • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
  • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $1.5M Pre Seed Round. - learn more
  • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

Venture Waves, Climate Tech Wins, and Silicon Beach's Ongoing Evolution

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Anduril Seeks $1.5B in VC Funds

Defense company Anduril Industries Inc., based in Costa Mesa and founded by Palmer Luckey, is seeking to raise $1.5 billion in fresh funds to boost its valuation to $12.5 billion or more, according to sources quoted by The Information. This fundraising effort, if successful, would mark one of the largest venture capital rounds of the year.

Image Source: Anduril

Anduril recently secured a contract to develop and test small unmanned fighter jet prototypes under the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, beating out major defense companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. Alongside General Atomics, Anduril will design, manufacture, and test these aircraft, with a final multibillion-dollar production decision expected in fiscal year 2026. This program aims to deliver at least 1,000 combat aircraft to fly in concert with manned platforms and is part of the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance initiative. Central to Anduril’s success in this contract is the Fury autonomous air vehicle, acquired through the purchase of Blue Force Technologies. This victory underscores Anduril's rapid advancement in the defense sector, aligning with Luckey's vision of building faster and more cost-effective defense assets. - learn more

Los Angeles Ranks Number 1 in Emerging Climate Tech Hub

The 2024 Emerging Climate Tech Hubs Report by Revolution highlights Los Angeles as a burgeoning center for climate tech innovation. LA's growth in this sector is driven by its diverse talent pool, strong research institutions, and a culture of environmental consciousness. The city's unique mix of legacy industries, such as entertainment and aerospace, alongside emerging tech companies, positions it as a pivotal player in the climate tech landscape. This shift reflects a broader trend of decentralized climate tech funding across the U.S., reducing the historical dominance of California's traditional hubs. - learn more

Silicon Beach: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Assessing the overall health of the startup market is challenging, especially as venture capital funding has decreased by an average of 61% from 2021 to 2023 across the top VC markets in the US. Markets with robust ecosystems in AI, SaaS, Biotech, Healthtech, and Fintech appear to be weathering the downturn better than those focused on Consumer and Gaming industries, areas where Los Angeles traditionally excels.

Percent Change In VC Funding By Region

CB Insights

LA Times paints a rather bleak outlook on the Los Angeles tech scene noting venture capital funding in Greater Los Angeles plummeted 73% from 2021 to 2022. Silicon Beach, once a vibrant tech corridor, currently faces high vacancy rates and lacks late-stage financiers, especially in the AI sector. However, there are positive signs, including growth in aerospace startups and increased venture capital investment in early 2024, suggesting a potential rebound for LA's tech ecosystem.

While LA may not be exceeding expectations during this period, its tech ecosystem warrants a nuanced evaluation, given the broader market dynamics and its strong performance in specific sectors. Reach out to us with your thoughts.

🚀 SpaceX gears up for another stellar year, active raises, and more

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Happy Friday Los Angeles! You made it through the first week of 2024!

🔦 Spotlight

Elon Musk may be a divisive (albeit entertaining) figure, but the continued success of SpaceX is pivotal for the aerospace industry in Los Angeles and more broadly around the world.

Image Source: SpaceX webcast

What happened with SpaceX in 2023?

  • Elon Musk challenged Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg to a cage fight.
  • SpaceX launched 96 successful missions with its Falcon series of rockets, a 57% increase over its previous annual record.
  • SpaceX conducted two test flights of the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, Starship.
  • Roughly two-thirds of SpaceX's launches in 2023 were devoted to building out Starlink, the company's satellite-internet megaconstellation.
  • Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography was published in September including everything from Musk’s tumultuous relationship with his father to his work ethic and “demon mode”.

Moving forward what can we expect from SpaceX and its controversial founder? Continued innovation pushing the aerospace industry to new limits? Yes. More drama? Without a doubt.

Here is some of what is to come in 2024:

🤝 Venture Deals

Just Announced

Check back next week!

LA Exits

  • CG Oncology, an Irvine, CA-based developer of immunotherapies for bladder cancer, filed for a $100M IPO. It plans to list on the Nasdaq (CGON) with Morgan Stanley as left lead underwriter, and has raised around $317m in VC funding. - learn more
  • McNally Capital agreed to sell Advanced Micro Instruments, a Costa Mesa, CA-based maker of gas analyzers and sensing technologies, to Enpro (NYSE: NPO). - learn more

Actively Raising

  • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
  • CZero, a hard-tech startup that is developing a technology for decarbonizing natural gas, is raising a $1.5M Seed Round. - learn more
  • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
  • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $250K Angel Round. - learn more
  • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

📅 LA Tech Calendar

Sunday, January 7th

Wednesday, January 10th

  • Startup Cafe: Networking with a Kick - Entrepreneurs, Startups, and Tech Enthusiasts join together to meet and connect with like-minded people, industry professionals and investors, while enjoying a nice cup of coffee in Venice at The KINN. This week’s interactive discussion about AI’s evolution in entertainment will feature Dr. Sam Khoze and Rachel Joy Victor.
  • Venice Tech Happy Hour- Join Startup Coil and FoundrHaus Wednesday evening and enjoy the sunset from the rooftop, grab a bite overlooking Abbot Kinney, and mingle with other tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs by the bar on the patio.

Have an awesome event coming up? Reach out to be featured on next week’s Newsletter!

📙 What We’re Reading

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