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Why SpaceX’s first private manned mission is a big deal

When the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” came out in 1968, it was not considered absurd to dream of a hotel in space, where you could watch the earth go by with a martini. The vision was given a boost in the early 1980s when the space shuttle program appeared to enable a future with frequent and routine trips to earth orbit. And when the first paying space tourists flew into space in the noughties, many people wondered when they too would be able to afford a trip into space.

There have been countless visions of a future in which normal people, i.e. non-astronauts without billions of dollars, can travel into space. Despite all the optimistic moments from the past, these dreams were never realized: Space travel has so far been largely reserved for professional astronauts or very wealthy people.

But that could change now – to put it mildly. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Thursday. On board was a crew of four, the same number as on Elon Musk’s previous two manned missions, all of which were historic milestones. The main difference this time around is that none of the inmates are trained astronauts. They are private individuals who launch a private rocket built by a private company. NASA is nowhere to be seen.

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

Inspiration4, as the mission is called, is hailed as a milestone in manned space travel. It is the first purely private mission to be launched into Earth orbit and then to remain there for a longer period of time. It was funded by US technology billionaire Jared Isaacman to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. The cost is estimated at $ 200 million.

Three non-billionaires travel with him: Hayley Arceneaux, who survived cancer and is a medical assistant; Chris Sembroski, a Lockheed Martin employee whose friend won a pod contest and gave him the ticket, and Sian Proctor, a geoscience professor who was also drawn by lot. “These people represent humanity,” says Laura Forczyk of the space consultancy Astralytical. “You are an ambassador.”

It is true that non-astronauts have already flown into space. From 2001 to 2009, seven people paid over $ 30 million per seat to travel to the International Space Station using Russian Soyuz rockets. In July of this year, billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos made short suborbital jumps, each lasting several minutes, in spacecraft built by their own companies.

But never before have humans flown into real earth orbit without being particularly rich and, above all, without the supervision of a national space agency like NASA. “This is the first privately operated orbital space flight in which only private individuals fly as passengers,” says space travel expert Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “Compared to the suborbital [Flügen] is that much more ambitious. “


Instead of docking with the International Space Station (ISS) as in SpaceX’s other manned missions, the Crew Dragon spacecraft will remain in orbit on its own for three days. In order to keep the crew busy, the docking point of the spaceship, which is normally used to connect to the ISS, has been converted into a glass dome, which gives the crew a wonderful panoramic view of the earth and space.

In addition, the objectives of the mission are rather limited. While some scientific experiments are planned, the most notable aspect of the mission is what will not happen: in particular, none of the crew will be directly piloting the spaceship. Instead, it will be controlled autonomously and with the help of the SpaceX Mission Control Station on Earth. This is not a trivial innovation, explains expert McDowell. And it carries risks. “If the automated systems suddenly stop working, there could be real problems,” he says. The project shows that trust in the software and the automatic control systems has now risen to such an extent that tourists can fly into space without a trained “nanny”.

All of these combined make the launch of Inspiration4 an exciting moment in manned spaceflight – albeit one that has been tried before. In the 1980s, NASA had hoped to start a similar project, the Space Flight Participant Program. It was an attempt to give various private individuals the opportunity to fly into space on the space shuttle. The then project manager Alan Ladwig explains that NASA wanted to convey the space experience to normal people – and thus the public – and selected teachers, journalists and artists.

However, the program came to a tragic end. The first participant, Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire teacher, was killed in the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986, as were the other six crew members. The project was later canceled – and the space shuttle program as a whole stagnated. Experts once assumed that you would fly hundreds of missions a year. But in the following 25 years only 110 more launches took place, until the shuttle fleet was decommissioned in 2011 and the USA initially lacked the opportunity to get back into space manned at all.

Despite Inspiration4: The majority of space travel will continue to be reserved for professional astronauts and (very) wealthy people. Those who are not rich still have to register for competitions or hope for a ticket from a wealthy patron – this is probably not the glorious future of space travel that many have imagined. However, Inspiration4 shows that there are also opportunities for “normal” people to travel to space, even if it is like winning the lottery. “It is definitely a milestone in human access to space,” says space historian John Logsdon, professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “In a very simple way, it means that anyone can fly.”

As in “2001”, however, we will not make our way to a huge rotating space hotel in a space plane from Pan-Am, the long-discontinued airline. But who knows what the future will bring. “This is a brand new industry that is still in its infancy – and we are seeing the first baby steps,” says analyst Forczyk. So who knows what’s coming next.


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