Elon Musk Must Be Pretty Relieved

SpaceX's first private astronauts have returned to Earth from a three-day stay in orbit.

Private astronaut Hayley Arceneaux takes in the view on SpaceX's Dragon capsule

The space tourists are back.

On Saturday night, the private astronauts braced themselves as their spacecraft streaked through Earth’s atmosphere, deployed parachutes, and then drifted down off the coast of Florida. When the capsule touched the waves, they might have heard a voice from mission control radio in: “Thanks for flying SpaceX.” As if the passengers had just touched down on a runway at O’Hare instead of surviving a fiery reentry. As if they hadn’t just spent three days flying higher than the International Space Station, with a window seat that looked out on the contours of entire continents.

The mission, known as Inspiration4, was the first-ever spaceflight of a crew made entirely of non-professional astronauts. The tech billionaire who chartered the trip for himself and three others paid “under $200 million” for it, and for that kind of money, SpaceX let him customize the experience, from the food menu to the flight plan. The crew—the businessman Jared Isaacman, the geoscience professor Sian Proctor, the physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux, and the data engineer Chris Sembroski—spent their time in orbit doing a few science experiments and generally basking in the microgravity. They even made a call to Tom Cruise, who plans to fly SpaceX to shoot a movie on the space station someday.

But although money can buy you a wild trip into orbit, it cannot shield you from the forces of nature, nor guarantee that you’ll make it home safely. Last year, when SpaceX started flying professional astronauts to the space station on NASA’s behalf, I wrote that the company is now responsible for astronaut safety to a degree no private business has ever experienced. The same is now true for everyone who books their own seat. However easy or safe this mission might have looked, spaceflight is dangerous.

Over the years, I’ve talked with many people who worked in the American space-shuttle program, including the astronauts who flew on the vehicles, and they all say the same thing about space travel: that there will always be a bad day. That people will die. When I checked in with several retired astronauts ahead of Inspiration4’s launch, they were excited about the mission, and thrilled for its crew to see Earth as they once had. But their stance on the hazards hadn’t changed. Beneath the shiny veneer of private space travel, with its futuristic-looking spacesuits and touch-screen displays, is the hard reality of risk. A series of successful missions adds up only to that. The astronauts of America’s space-shuttle era know better than perhaps anyone else that each new launch presents a new opportunity for disaster. As one former shuttle astronaut put it to me: “The shuttle was pretty routine until it blew up.”

In the past, when new engineers joined SpaceX’s human-spaceflight program, they toured a special NASA room, closed to the public, where the agency keeps debris from the space-shuttle disasters that claimed the lives of 14 people. Benji Reed, the senior director for human-spaceflight programs at SpaceX, once told me that he often visits a memorial at Kennedy Space Center when he’s in town. Seven oak trees stand in a circle, one for each astronaut who died on the Challenger in 1986, the mission that included the first “ordinary” citizen, the high-school teacher Christa McAuliffe.

The SpaceX astronaut capsule, small and gumdrop-shaped, is safer than the spacious, winged space shuttles were. If SpaceX detects a malfunction soon after liftoff, the Dragon capsule can shove itself away from the Falcon 9 rocket and toward safety. The shuttles didn’t have such an escape system; they were far more technically complex, with overstuffed control panels. “You had switches literally right next to each other, and if you threw the wrong one, you could make your day a lot worse rather than a lot better,” Doug Hurley, a NASA astronaut, told me in 2019, while he was training to fly SpaceX’s Dragon. The capsule, he estimated, had only about 30 manual switches and circuit breakers, compared with about 2,000 on the shuttles.

That first flight test, which Hurley and fellow NASA astronaut Bob Behnken completed last year, was quickly declared a success. The real assessment came well after the astronauts were out of the water, when engineers looked at the data and inspected the hardware. It turned out that during Hurley and Behnken’s descent through the atmosphere, the heat shield, the hardware that protects the capsule from the scorching conditions of reentry, eroded more than SpaceX had expected.

SpaceX officials said that there was “nothing to be concerned” about, but the company decided to redesign part of the heat shield, and to also make a change to the capsule’s parachute, which had deployed closer to the water than anticipated. It’s not uncommon for engineers to discover a few uncomfortable truths post-flight, even some that really make them wince. “It does not matter how close you get to failure, as long as you don’t cross the line,” George “Pinky” Nelson, a retired NASA astronaut, once told me. Nelson flew on the last shuttle mission before the Challenger disaster, and on the mission that resumed the program two years later, after NASA decided it would keep flying.

The Dragon program’s history hasn’t been without incident. About a year before Hurley and Behnken launched, a Dragon capsule was destroyed in an explosion. SpaceX had been running some tests on the spacecraft on the ground at Kennedy Space Center, igniting its engines. The smoke could be seen for miles on the Space Coast, but SpaceX stayed mostly quiet about the incident, even refusing to comment on some up-close video footage, shared widely, that showed the capsule engulfed in flames.

The Dragon capsule that the Inspiration4 crew used transported four professional astronauts to the space station last year. SpaceX didn’t modify much aside from installing a big, bubble-shaped glass window so that its first private customers could have a good view. Isaacman told reporters before launch that the crew had just spoken to Musk, who “did give us his assurances again that the entire leadership team is solely focused on this mission and is very confident.”

Sandy Magnus, a retired astronaut who flew on the shuttle program’s final mission, in 2011, told me she wasn’t worried about the Inspiration4 crew for that reason. Of course SpaceX was going to be on high alert for its first-ever flight of private astronauts. Reed told reporters this week that SpaceX wants to fly paying customers “three, four, five, six times a year at least.” But another successful mission, another beautiful splashdown, doesn’t guarantee the next one—that’s the lesson NASA personnel have tried to impart on SpaceX, in briefings, meetings, and lectures. Complacency kills. “Ten flights down the line, when it becomes routine, that’s when you really have to be careful,” Magnus said. The Challenger disaster occurred when senior NASA officials ignored warnings from engineers about a piece of hardware that could fail in very low temperatures, and though it hadn’t happened before, the shuttle was about to launch in some unusually cold weather. Years later, engineers noticed that some foam insulation on the shuttles peeled away during launch, but the situation seemed fine—until some of that foam damaged Columbia’s heat shield in 2003, causing the shuttle to break apart during reentry.

What will the consequence be for private space travel if the worst occurs? If disaster happens while SpaceX is transporting NASA astronauts, the agency could decide to give SpaceX another chance after some years of careful investigation and reckoning. But what if the lost astronauts are ordinary people, enticed on board by someone wealthy enough to invite them? That would be up to SpaceX, and Elon Musk. Musk has long said that he envisions a future where space travel resembles air travel. Franklin Chang-Díaz, a retired NASA astronaut who flew on the space shuttle seven times—and is one of only two people with that many spaceflights—told me that he believes the industry is moving in that direction. The deadly mistakes of early air travel led to safety improvements, but now “most people don’t pay attention to the fact that you’re going to be flying in a pressurized vehicle, and you’re going to be flying at 30,000, 40,000 feet about the Earth, and going at 400, 500 miles per hour,” Chang-Díaz said. “All you want is just to have your internet and maybe something to drink.”

Space travel is not like that now, and won’t be for some time. It is more like climbing Mount Everest, or some other similarly extreme adventure—among the riskiest vacations humankind has to offer. In this new chapter of spaceflight, paying customers, buoyed not by a sense of national duty, as the first astronauts were, but by something personal, will have to make their own risk calculations—for themselves and the family they might be leaving on Earth. Because, as any astronaut would tell you, spaceflight is always harder on the families.

Nelson said that NASA officials kept his family more closely in the loop as he trained for his post-Challenger mission than they had before previous missions, in an effort to reassure them, and SpaceX has taken similar measures so far. Arceneaux, Inspiration4’s youngest astronaut, told me that a meeting with SpaceX’s engineers, which she attended with her mother, gave her what she needed to feel that she trusted the company. She understood the risk, but she felt as confident as she could. The greater public isn’t mentally prepared for disaster in the same way. “I think the public, in the back of their mind, knows that astronauts have been killed before,” Nelson said. But it’s always a shock. “The public never expects people to die,” he said.