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.
With a Billionaire’s Backing, SpaceX Sends Citizen Spacefliers Into Orbit for a Mission Like No Other
A tech billionaire and three other non-professional spacefliers blasted off today to begin the first non-governmental, philanthropic mission carrying a crew to orbit.
The founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, Jared Isaacman, is paying what's thought to be in excess of $100 million for what's expected to be a three-day flight in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
Isaacman organized the Inspiration4 mission with SpaceX's help as a benefit for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. The 38-year-old billionaire kicked off the $200 million campaign with a commitment to donate $100 million himself.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:02 p.m. ET (5:02 p.m. PT). "Punch it, SpaceX!" Isaacman told mission control.
On the webcast, every phase of the ascent drew raucous cheers from hundreds of SpaceX employees who gathered at the company's headquarters in California. Nearly half a million viewers watched the streaming coverage at its peak.
Minutes after liftoff, the rocket's reusable first-stage booster flew itself back to an at-sea landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic, while the second stage pushed the Crew Dragon the rest of the way to orbit.
After the Dragon reached orbit, Isaacman noted that he and his "all-civilian" crew had wedged their way to space through a metaphorical door that relatively few humans have gone through. "Many are about to follow," said Isaacman, an amateur jet pilot who's been trained to take control of the Dragon if its autonomous navigation system fails. "The door is opening now, and it's pretty incredible."
Although the flight started out from NASA-owned property, the space agency has minimal involvement in this mission.
Instead of heading for the International Space Station, as all of SpaceX's other crewed flights have done, this Crew Dragon will trace an orbit that rises as high as 363 miles (585 kilometers). That's higher than the space station, and higher than the Hubble Space Telescope. In fact, Inspiration4 will be humanity's highest-flying space trip since the space shuttle fleet's Hubble missions, which took place when the space telescope was at a slightly loftier altitude.
The high-altitude itinerary is in line with SpaceX's aspirations to go beyond Earth orbit — aspirations that Inspiration4 mission director Todd Ericson said were in line with Isaacman's view. "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," Ericson told GeekWire during a pre-launch interview.
For this trip, SpaceX developed a cupola that's taking the place of the Crew Dragon's docking port and will provide a 360-degree view of Earth below or the sky above.
Today's launch marked the culmination of a process that began with a Super Bowl commercial and continued with months of training for Isaacman and his three crewmates. The training included hours upon hours of studies and simulations, a zero-gravity airplane flight, some nausea-inducing centrifuge sessions, high-G jet maneuvers and a climbing trip to Mount Rainier in May.
Isaacman's three crewmates were chosen in a variety of ways. They include:
- Hayley Arceneaux, a survivor of childhood cancer who became a physician assistant at St. Jude. Hospital officials chose Arceneaux to fly at Isaacman's invitation. She's the first person to go into space with a prosthesis — a titanium rod that was put in her left leg during treatment for bone cancer. At the age of 29, Arceneaux is the youngest human to go into orbit and the youngest American to go into space. (Dutch student Oliver Daemen holds the world record for youngest in space by virtue of July's suborbital flight on Blue Origin's New Shepard spaceship. He was 18 at the time.)
- Sian Proctor, 51, an Arizona-based educator and artist who's backing up Isaacman as the Crew Dragon's pilot. That makes her the first Black female pilot on an orbital space mission. Proctor was chosen through an online competition for users of Shift4's online payment system.
- Chris Sembroski, 42, an Air Force veteran who lives in Everett, Wash., and works for Lockheed Martin as a data engineer. Sembroski has been a space buff since his youth, and entered Inspiration4's charity sweepstakes for the fourth spot on the mission. His ticket wasn't picked, but the winner turned out to be a college buddy of his. That buddy decided not to go and picked Sembroski to fly instead.
Sembroski will be in charge of managing the payloads aboard the Crew Dragon — including medical experiments, flown-in-space items that will be auctioned off to benefit St. Jude, and a ukulele that he'll play in space.
During the three days that they're scheduled to spend in orbit, the Inspiration4 foursome will monitor their radiation exposure, glucose levels and other health indicators. They'll conduct a variety of educational and outreach activities, including schoolroom classes and contacts with cancer patients. But they'll also have plenty of time to look out at Earth through their custom-made cupola.
"Of course I'm going to be looking down at my home in Western Washington," Sembroski said before liftoff. "I'm also looking to see what I don't see — and that's going to be lines on a map or those walls that seem to separate all of us."
This story originally appeared on GeekWire.
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.
- NASA gives crucial thumbs-up to SpaceX's historic crewed flight ›
- SpaceX to Launch Four Civilians into Orbit this Year - dot.LA ›
- inspiration4 - dot.LA ›
- SpaceX to Launch Four Civilians into Orbit this Year - dot.LA ›
VAN HORN, Texas — As of today, Jeff Bezos is not only the richest person on Earth. He's the richest person to fly to space as well.
The billionaire and three crewmates — including the world's oldest space traveler and the youngest — took an 11-minute ride on a reusable New Shepard rocket ship that was built by Blue Origin, the company created by Bezos in 2000.
"There's a very happy group of people in this capsule!" Bezos could be heard saying just after touchdown. "Best day ever!"
Today's flight marked the first time that people flew aboard New Shepard, which previously went through 15 uncrewed tests at Blue Origin's West Texas spaceport. The vehicle is designed to be flown autonomously, without a pilot at the controls.
Before the flight, Bezos said it was important for him to take a seat on the first crewed flight and demonstrate New Shepard's safety. "We know the vehicle is safe," he told CNN. "If it's not safe for me, then it's not safe for anyone."
In a historical flourish that's fitting for a man who paid to have the booster engines for NASA's Apollo moon missions retrieved from the bottom of the Atlantic, the milestone flight took place on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. And speaking of flourishes, Jeff Bezos wore a cowboy hat and his lucky cowboy boots as he entered the capsule.
New Shepard's first crew also included an aviation pioneer who missed out on NASA's glory days: Wally Funk, a member of the "Mercury 13" group of women who were put through the same tests that the Mercury astronauts suffered through in the early 1960s but were never able to join the astronaut corps.
Funk, who's now 82, today displaced the late Mercury astronaut John Glenn from the most senior spot on the list of spacefliers. (Glenn was 77 when he flew on the shuttle Discovery in 1998 as a U.S. senator.)
Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket ship rises from its Texas launch pad. (Blue Origin via YouTube
Another record-setter on the crew is Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old Dutch student who is now the world's youngest person to fly to space. (The late Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, who followed Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961 at the age of 25, previously held the record.)
Daemen, the son of a Dutch investment company's CEO, had been planning to go on Blue Origin's second crewed flight. He was switched to the first crew when the winner of a $28 million auction asked to go on a later flight, reportedly due to a scheduling conflict.
Bezos also brought along his brother, Mark Bezos, an investor and volunteer firefighter whom the billionaire described as his best friend. Just before launch, capsule communicator Sarah Knights read out a message from the Bezos brothers' sister, Christina Bezos, who reminded Mark about the "Star Trek" games they used to play (with Jeff filling the Captain Kirk role).
"Mark, be prepared to fire those torpedoes if ordered to do so," Christina said.
Today's 11-minute mission was essentially a repeat of New Shepard's uncrewed test missions, starting with the ascent of the hydrogen-fueled booster from Blue Origin's Launch Site One. Less than three minutes after liftoff, the crew capsule separated from the booster and continued rising past the target altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles).
The difference this time around is that there were actually four people on board to gaze out the capsule's jumbo-size windows, unstrap themselves from their seats and float around the cabin in zero gravity. Previous missions used a sensor-laden test dummy nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker.
While the booster guided itself to an autonomous landing on a pad at Launch Site One, the capsule decelerated and drifted down to the Texas desert at the end of its parachutes. Retro rockets fired just before touchdown, cushioning the impact and kicking up a cloud of dust. Soon afterward, Blue Origin's recovery team picked up the newly minted spacefliers.
The successful flight stands as one of the greatest achievements to date for Blue Origin, the company that Bezos founded in 2000 with the ultimate goal of having "millions of people living and working in space." During a string of TV interviews on the eve of the flight, Bezos insisted that Blue Origin was building a "road to space" that future generations could follow for the benefit of humanity.
In addition to the New Shepard program (named in honor of the late NASA astronaut Alan Shepard), Blue Origin is also developing an orbital-class rocket called New Glenn, and has been working with industry partners on a lunar landing system for NASA. Those programs have suffered setbacks, however, principally having to do with government contracts that were lost to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.
In the suborbital spaceflight market, Blue Origin's biggest competitor is Virgin Galactic, which is nearing the end of the flight test program for its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, dubbed VSS Unity. Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson climbed aboard Unity for its most recent test flight last week, scoring a victory in the billionaire space race. However, Blue Origin beat Virgin Galactic to the punch today when it flew Daemens, the first suborbital space customer to use his ticket to fly.
If all proceeds according to plan, Blue Origin will fly its next crewed suborbital space mission in the September-October time frame, while Virgin Galactic will start taking on commercial passengers next year.
Tidbits from New Shepard's first crewed flight:
- Three of today's spacefarers used their last names as call signs, but because there were two Bezoses on board, Mark Bezos used the call sign "DEMO," which is an acronym created from the first names of his four children.
- Blue Origin used Rivian electric trucks to carry crew members to the launch pad and pick them up after landing. It's no coincidence that Amazon, the other company founded by Bezos, has invested in Rivian and ordered 100,000 Rivian electric vans for Amazon's delivery fleet.
This story first appeared on GeekWire.