SpaceX will launch the first tourists to orbit since 2009

The four Inspiration4 crew members are ready for liftoff.
The four Inspiration4 crew members are ready for liftoff.
Image: Inspiration4/John Kraus
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Four paying passengers will ride a SpaceX rocket into orbit on Sept. 15, becoming the first tourists in orbit in more than a decade and kick-starting a new era of private activity in low-earth orbit.

Who is flying on Inspiration4?

Jordan Isaacman, the billionaire who founded the payments firm Shift4 as a 16 year-old, chartered the trip from Elon Musk’s space company. Isaacman chose three other passengers to join him on the Inspiration4 mission: Haley Arcenaux, a cancer survivor and physician’s assistant at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital; Dr. Sian Proctor, a geology professor and space enthusiast who won a contest organized by Isaacman’s company and will be just the fourth Black woman in space; and Christopher Sembroski, a former Air Force officer and Lockheed Martin engineer who was chosen from a pool of donors to St. Jude’s.

How will the crew get to space?

SpaceX will fly the private crew on its autonomous Dragon spacecraft, which launches on top of a reusable Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral. This technology was developed for NASA and flew astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time in 2020. There are two Dragon vehicles docked at the ISS now, so with this launch, there will be three SpaceX vehicles on orbit.

The Dragon is the lowest-cost space vehicle for carrying humans ever developed, and is intended to seed future commerce in orbit with missions like this one. Another tourism mission, arranged by the company Axiom Space and using SpaceX vehicles, is expected to launch in 2022 and will see paying passengers arrive at the International Space Station for a two-week stay. Carrying tourists, or astronauts from countries without their own space vehicles, will subsidize NASA’s trips to space, and agency officials hope this transportation system will incentivize efforts to build private orbital habitats.

At what time is the SpaceX launch?

The flight is scheduled to lift off sometime during a five hour window starting at 8:02 EST. You can watch the launch live here.

How much did the Inspiration4 mission cost?

The cost of the joyride has not been disclosed but could be around $250 million if Isaacman is paying NASA prices; he may have received a discount because both the rocket and the space capsule assigned to the mission have flown before for NASA and are being reused.

The mission will also raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, through a contest to join the trip and the sale of memorabilia after the flight. So far, the mission’s organizers say they have raised $128 million for the organization, with a goal of $200 million.

What will Inspiration4’s crew do in orbit?

The four passengers expect to spend three days circling the planet, inside the Dragon capsule’s 328 cubic feet of volume (9.3 cubic meters)—about twice the space available inside a standard minivan. They’re prepared for close quarters, after spending 30 hours together in a simulator back on earth. The tourists will fly at an altitude of about 357 miles (575 km), which SpaceX says is the highest human spaceflight since missions to repair the Hubble telescope in 2009. For comparison, the ISS orbits about 254 miles (408 km) above the earth.

While onboard, the passengers will be able to enjoy the view through a special cupola that has been installed on the vehicle. They’ll perform some scientific research focused on understanding how the human body handles the stresses of spaceflight and microgravity. And they’ll prep some memorabilia to be auctioned off when they return to earth, including playing a ukelele and a song by Kings of Leon that will be minted into a Non-Fungible Token (NFT).

How dangerous is this mission?

NASA required SpaceX to develop its crew Dragon so that the risk of losing a crew onboard would be a probability of less than one in 270, compared to the one in 90 for the space shuttle. That’s not safe, but you still have a greater chance of dying in a car accident over your lifetime than these tourists have of losing their lives during this mission, assuming the math used by NASA and SpaceX is right. The biggest external threat to the mission is space debris colliding with the vehicle, particularly micrometeoroids that might not show up on radar.

How does this compare to other space tourism projects?

At the turn of the century, a company called Space Adventures brokered eight trips to the ISS for wealthy space enthusiasts willing to tag along with cosmonauts for $20 to $30 million a seat. The “space flight participants” included Anouseh Ansari, the Iranian-American aerospace entrepreneur, Guy Laliberté, the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, and, twice, Charles Simonyi, a Microsoft executive. The last of those missions took place in 2009, before the cancellation of the Space Shuttle made seats on orbital spacecraft too scarce to be purchased. With the debut of SpaceX’s Dragon, there’s now enough transportation to satisfy the government’s needs and reopen space to private buyers.

There’s a big difference between this mission and other recent space tourism efforts: Its passengers will actually stay in space, orbiting the planet, for several days. When Jeff Bezos took flight in the capsule designed by his company Blue Origin, or when Richard Branson flew in the rocket plane developed by his firm Virgin Galactic, they traveled higher than the altitude generally used to mark the boundary between earth’s atmosphere and the vacuum of space—about 80 km (50 miles)—but they spent just a few minutes there before returning to earth. Building a vehicle that produces enough power to safely reach the velocity required to remain in orbit, some 17,500 mph (28,000 km/h), is a significantly bigger engineering challenge, and arguably a more direct path to the future space economy.