Of the 560 people who have ever traveled to space, the vast majority are professional astronauts and cosmonauts who work for, and represent, governmental space agencies.
But with the advent of commercial crew vehicles such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, this traditional access route to orbit may soon widen to accommodate more civilians, which has been a long-time dream for many space enthusiasts.
A new mission called Inspiration-4, due for launch later this year, is one of the most significant beacons of this sea-change. Wealthy tourists and private citizens have occasionally visited space in the past, but Inspiration-4 will be “the first all-civilian mission to space,” said Jared Isaacman, CEO of Shift4Payments and commander of the unprecedented spaceflight.
“It’s a first step towards a world where anyone can go and explore among the stars,” Isaacman told VICE News. “This is the first time in history that it isn’t a global superpower like the United States, Russia, China, or the European Space Agency that will actually put human beings into orbit.”
Isaacman and his three crewmates will launch into orbit aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has already successfully ferried three crews to the International Space Station on behalf of NASA and other federal space agencies over the past year. However, the civilian space travelers will not head to the station for their flight; instead they will spend about three days voyaging through low-Earth orbit before returning to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean.
“There will be some interesting elements to the orbit because we’re not going to the space station, which is kind of unique,” Isaacman said. “We’re going somewhere else, which we think is important. It’s actually a big stepping stone to the missions to come, which will hopefully be to the Moon and Mars and beyond.”
In addition to these spaceflight goals, Inspiration-4 hopes to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Isaacman, an experienced pilot, has already committed to providing half of that goal, while purchasing a seat on the flight for Hayley Arceneaux, a survivor of childhood bone cancer who works at St Jude. Christopher Sembroski, an engineer at Lockheed Martin, and Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and community college professor, are also slated to fly on Inspiration-4.
Though the spaceflight itself will be relatively short, Inspiration-4 could provide a roadmap for civilian space missions over the long term. Commercial space vehicles are expected to make off-Earth trips more affordable, but they will still be far out of reach for average people for the foreseeable future. With that in mind, Inspiration-4 is built around a model of wealthy people covering expenses for less privileged crew members, while also supporting charitable causes.
Given the costs of spaceflight, this may be one of the only ways to involve private citizens in the exploration of the expanse beyond Earth, at least for the next few decades.
“We really need to succeed,” Isaacman said. “We have to get our mission right for all those others to follow. If we don’t execute really well, then it slips the timeline for all the missions to come.”
That said, he added that he has “no doubt” that the era of civilian spaceflight “is coming.”