Finally, a Private Spaceflight With a Billionaire You’ve Never Heard Of
SpaceX’s first space tourists are launching into orbit this week, and they seem almost normal.
The glass window on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is a new feature. It juts out from the small spacecraft like a half-formed soap bubble, still attached to a plastic wand, offering an unimpeded view of the Earth below and the stars beyond.
On previous flights, the same spot was reserved for docking hardware so that the capsule could join up with the International Space Station. But SpaceX’s newest crew, scheduled to launch this week, doesn’t need such tools. All four passengers are private citizens taking a wild ride into space just to spend three days orbiting Earth. The purpose of the trip is to give this crew a new perspective on the cosmos, and our place in it—so the view had better be good.
This flight, chartered by 38-year-old billionaire businessman Jared Isaacman for himself and three others, will be SpaceX’s first attempt to fly private passengers into orbit and back. Isaacman won’t say how much the trip cost, only that it came in under $200 million.
This mission, known as Inspiration4, might seem like a continuation of the space-tourism antics of the past several months. But this event is quite different, in large part because of the crew. Yes, Isaacman is a billionaire who made his money from a payment-processing company, but he’s a normal billionaire and relatively unknown, unlike Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, or Jeff Bezos, who recently launched to the edge of space on his own rocket.
Isaacman is bringing with him three people who, not long ago, were complete strangers to him and one another. Hayley Arceneaux is a physician assistant who works with children with cancer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She had cancer as a child herself, and has said that she’d never meet NASA’s physical requirements for spacefarers because of a titanium rod in her leg. (Isaacman is raising money for the hospital, and wanted to bring one of its employees.) Sian Proctor is a geoscience professor who was once a finalist in NASA’s astronaut program; she says she felt like Harry Potter finding out he was a wizard when she found out she would be going to space. (She won an online competition that Isaacman had set up.) Chris Sembroski is a data engineer, an Iraq War veteran, and a self-described space nerd. (A friend of his won a raffle that Isaacman had organized and gave Sembroski his spot.) In April, Isaacman took them hiking and camping for a weekend as a test of their teamwork and mettle, but also to hang out as friends. They have a group chat, and they talk every day. Everything they’ve said publicly so far makes them seem like … nice, ordinary people?
Of course, Richard Branson’s flight to space in July included nice, ordinary people too—the Virgin Galactic pilots and employees. And Bezos’s companions on the Blue Origin trip—his brother, a recent high-school graduate, and the aviation legend Wally Funk—projected their own friendly vibe, closely bonded after just a few days of training. But the Inspiration4 mission is not part of a blatant rocket-measuring contest between space billionaires. The launch wasn’t scheduled so that SpaceX could beat some other crew of private passengers to space, as Branson’s reportedly was, and Elon Musk won’t be strapped in alongside the four passengers, even though there’s enough room.
From this perspective, the Inspiration4 mission seems wonderfully devoid of ego. This crew resembles future groups of space tourists: a rich person you’ve never heard of and the people they decide to bring along with them. Eventually, the tagalongs are more likely to be the longtime buddies of the sponsors—the friends they’d normally invite on the yacht, for example—instead of people picked with an eye toward good PR. But at this moment, it’s not so difficult to root for the passengers of Inspiration4, even the tech billionaire.
And Isaacman, Proctor, Arceneaux, and Sembroski are embarking on a journey far more intense and perilous than the flights Bezos and Branson took. The space billionaires made it to the edge of space, experienced a few minutes of weightlessness, and then touched down on solid ground. The Inspiration4 passengers will blast through that hazy boundary and fly all the way into orbit, where they will round the planet at thousands of miles an hour for three days before plunging into the atmosphere for a fiery reentry and splashing down at sea.
And they will be alone. Isaacman is a licensed pilot with experience flying fighter jets, but no professional will accompany them. Unlike the space shuttles that once took NASA astronauts to space, the Dragon capsule is an autonomous spacecraft. SpaceX developed the vehicle under a NASA contract, and last year, when two NASA astronauts test-drove the vehicle for the first time, they took it off autopilot for a few minutes, just to see how it handled. But the rest of the time, SpaceX was flying for them. SpaceX has the power to control the capsule from the ground if needed, but if the vehicle loses contact with mission control, it will be up to the passengers to manage. Musk seems to have decided that they will do fine on their own.
The Inspiration4 crew’s training for the trip lasted less than six months, far shorter than professional astronauts’ years-long training, but much more rigorous than the prep for a quick suborbital flight. The passengers studied manuals, took quizzes, spun around in a centrifuge, and navigated mission simulations, including emergency situations. In orbit, Isaacman will serve as mission commander, and Proctor, the second in command, will assist, monitoring spacecraft systems. Sembroski has been trained to carry out system repairs, and Arceneaux will do some scientific experiments, including drawing blood samples from her fellow passengers.
As anyone who has paid for an organized group trip knows, putting a bunch of relative strangers together in a small space with little reprieve can easily lead to awkwardness and tension. As nice and cheery as the crew members seem, their chemistry is its own risky unknown. Unlike NASA crews, this private crew wasn’t selected with protocols about compatibility in mind. SpaceX has at least considered the possibility that the vibe in the capsule could change rapidly: According to the space journalist Miriam Kramer, who has chronicled the mission preparations in an Axios podcast, the Dragon will carry zip ties and medication in case someone needs to be restrained and sedated, and Arceneaux and Sembroski have been specifically trained on how to deploy them.
Isaacman is meant to be the first of many customers wealthy enough to afford such an orbital trip. When the Inspiration4 was announced in February, the entrepreneur said he was aware that his crew would send a message about whom space is for, and he promised that the lineup would “absolutely be diverse.” “I could have just invited a bunch of my pilot buddies to go, and we would have had a great time and come back and had a bunch of cocktails,” Isaacman said in a recent interview with Time. Someday, there might indeed be a crew of pilot buddies, or maybe even a bachelor party. But on this first flight, the crew is a wholesome, starry-eyed bunch, imbued with a sense of awe at what they’re about to do. In many ways, their mission marks the beginning of a new era in American spaceflight.
There was one moment in Kramer’s interviews with the crew that really struck me, not for its magnitude, but for its delightful mundanity. Isaacman mentioned that the crew’s reading material consisted of many PDFs, including “a handful of PDFs that really are going to matter.” Which certainly makes sense—what other type of document would they use for a bunch of in-depth spacecraft manuals? But still—PDFs! Just another reminder that soaring to such a breathtaking view of Earth does require some less-dazzling work.