Four people, all of whom just six months ago had no formal spaceflight training, strapped themselves into a SpaceX capsule atop a 200-foot-tall rocket and took a three-day spin around Earth. After splashing down off the coast of Florida on Saturday, the passengers emerged from their capsule, smiling and waving, if a little unsteady after spending nearly 72 hours in weightlessness. SpaceX says it’s just the beginning.
The crew included 38-year-old billionaire Jared Isaacman, who personally financed the trip; Hayley Arceneux, 29, a childhood cancer survivor and physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; Sian Proctor, 51, a geologist and professor; and Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old Lockheed Martin employee and lifelong space fan who claimed his seat through an online raffle.
Inspiration4, as the tourism mission that concluded Saturday was called, was far from the first time people who don’t list astronaut as their day job have been to space. In the 2000s, a cohort of wealthy thrill seekers paid their way onto the International Space Station, traveling via Russian Soyuz rockets. And in July, billionaire space company founders Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos each took a brief trip to suborbital space in spacecraft their respective companies built.
The Inspiration4 flight was notable, however, because it was the first time SpaceX had used one of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which was developed to carry professional astronauts to and from the International Space Station on behalf of NASA, for an entirely private mission.
SpaceX has even more such missions on its Crew Dragon schedule, including five already contracted for additional groups of tourists to fly in the months and years ahead. The company is underway developing its “Starship” vehicle, a gargantuan rocket and spacecraft system that promises to be the most powerful ever launched. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has also booked a trip on that rocket for a trip around the moon, and NASA could use it for its lunar landing ambitions.
SpaceX’s goal is to make extraterrestrial travel a more regular occurrence so that — if and when Earth’s orbit is home to extraterrestrial hotels and manufacturing facilities — outer space becomes relatively more accessible for the general population. Space tourism may also one day help fund SpaceX’s ambitious goals of attempting Martian colonization.
Already, Inspiration4 and similar space tourism missions are opening up debates, such as what exactly we should call civilians who travel into space? Are they astronauts? Are such missions really “for everyone” or will they remain accessible only to the ultra-rich and their chosen few? And should we be dreaming of living and working in space at all when humanity is facing so many pressing issues on our home planet?
What Inspiration4 did — and didn’t — do
Inspiration4 likely cost many millions of dollars, according to figures published by the US government on the price of a Crew Dragon capsule. Isaacman told Axios that it was “less than $200 million,” but declined to offer more specifics.
That means Inspiration4 is still far from the harbinger of a time in which space travel is truly attainable for everyone. And that’s raised concerns that the future of space travel will be mapped by those with means, turning space from the marvel that humanity has spent centuries pondering into a playground for rich people.
Isaacman addressed that criticism in an interview with CNN Business last month, saying his only goal with Inspiration4 was to, well, inspire. And that’s why he coupled the mission with a St. Jude fundraiser, which surpassed its $200 million goal thanks to a $50 million donation from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
And the mission certainly gave Isaacman a platform. More than 3 million people tuned in to watch the Inspiration4 launch last week, and millions more watched the splash-down return. Twitter was flooded with posts about their journey, both admiring and mocking.
Timiebi Aganaba, who researches space ethics and law and teaches at Arizona State University, said the reaction is all a symptom of the innate complexity of imagining humanity’s future in space.
“It’s hard for me because I am also part of the space enthusiast community, but I think I’m a little bit more of a realist,” she told CNN Business. “Inspiration4 feels like a one-off event. It was still initiated by a conversation between two billionaires” — Isaacman and Musk — “and it was still a great marketing opportunity.”
She added that it is easy to be inspired by the idea that four people, all total strangers with little to no experience in spaceflight , have the bravery to strap themselves on top of a rocket despite the numerous risks inherent to such an adventure.
But, beyond the awe of spaceflight, Aganaba acknowledged that even she has grappled with the the question of how much focus — and resources — we should be putting into space travel when people all over the world “are dying and starving and hungry.”
Nevertheless, she still encourages people to pay attention and to develop a sense of curiosity about space and what it is we should be doing there.
“That sense of being able to look beyond their immediate circumstances and see the future and see something different is going to take them far wherever they end up going,” she said.
SpaceX is the poster child of a new space age in which companies — rather than governments — carry the mantel of space exploration. The idea is that the private sector can drive innovation and bring down costs.
Dozens of other companies have similar visions. Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic, and Bezos’ Blue Origin are working to make suborbital joy rides — which cost significantly less money than orbital jaunts but still have a roughly quarter-million-dollar price tag — a routine experience.
And on the orbital side, a Houston-based company called Axiom, run by a former NASA leader, has already booked four missions with SpaceX for private citizen trips to the ISS. The company also says it’s currently constructing the world’s first commercial space station.
Space Adventures, the company behind the Russian-provided tourism missions of the early 2000s, has also booked a flight with SpaceX. And it’s scheduled a flight for Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa — the same person who booked the moon mission on SpaceX’s Starship — on a Russian Soyuz rocket for December 2021.
There’s plans to film a few reality television shows: one a competition series that will send the winner to orbit, and another that would see MMA fighters duke it out in microgravity. Tom Cruise, who also phoned in to chat with the Inspiration4 crew during their journey, also plans to shoot a movie on the ISS.
Whether or not those plans come to fruition remains to be seen. The history of private space exploration is speckled with far more failures than successes. It’s still hugely expensive to get objects to space and the danger of space travel looms. If any one mission — whether a NASA or commercial mission — were to end in tragedy, it could hobble the industry for years to come.
As for space tourism, specifically, Aganaba said she does not foresee it becoming a mass market business.
“This last year was a little bit over the top of people saying ‘Everyone is going to go to space!’… Does everyone needs to go to space?” she said. “Everyone doesn’t need to go to Mount Everest.”