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Why SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission matters to everyone

Commentary: It's arguably the biggest mission in the so-called billionaire space race of 2021 and a key step to a more high-flying future.

Hayley Arceneaux, medical specialist on the Inspiration4 mission, in the Crew Dragon cupola against a backdrop of the Earth

Hayley Arceneaux, a physician's assistant at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and medical specialist on the Inspiration4 mission, in the Crew Dragon cupola.

Inspiration4x/Twitter

Imagine getting a call saying that if you want, you can join the rare group of less than a thousand humans who've not only visited space but orbited this planet. Oh, and the mission blasts off in about six months. 

That's the call three Americans received earlier this year. And the offer wasn't for the type of 15-minute joyride to the edge of space we recently saw from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. We're talking about a three-day sojourn in orbit, the sort of thing NASA astronauts spend their entire lives preparing for.

Sure, civilians have flown to the International Space Station before, but it typically required a personal fortune, a little influence and months or even years of training. The idea of plucking people from obscurity, Wonka-style, and sending them into orbit has been the stuff of science fiction.

Until now. 

As I wrote this, physician's assistant Hayley Arceneaux and data engineer Chris Sembroski, both of whom had zero reason as of a year ago to expect they'd ever visit space, were whipping around this planet roughly every 90 minutes. 

They were joined by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman and geologist Sian Proctor, who both have experience as pilots but no spaceflight experience. 

The quartet makes up the entirety of the crew of the Inspiration4 mission that splashed back down to Earth on Saturday. There was no professional astronaut chaperone from NASA on board, just four space novices cruising above Earth, performing research and making history. The mission is also billed as a fundraiser for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, where Arceneaux was a patient as a child and now works as a medical professional.

This was all bankrolled by Isaacman and possible thanks to SpaceX and its autonomous Crew Dragon spacecraft, the first new crewed spaceship (outside of China) that we've seen since the space shuttle made its debut decades ago. 

For space fanatics, this mission is a big deal, but several billion other humans can be forgiven for wondering why it matters that yet another wealthy person has financed a trip to space and invited a few randos to ride along. 

Inspiration for who?

First, it's important to remember that new methods of transport have typically gone through the same process -- trains and planes started out as elite experiences went on to revolutionize our lives. This suggests the Inspiration4 crew could be just the first of many regular people to go to orbit or beyond. (SpaceX didn't respond to a request for comment.)

Elon Musk has suggested his next-generation Starship could eventually be used for super quick international flights via orbit, possibly with less of a carbon footprint than current commercial jetliners. 

Inspiration4 lays the groundwork for the idea of making it to orbit as a passive passenger and opening up space for transportation and other possible uses. 

If you believe, as I do, that expanding humanity's footprint beyond our planet is likely to improve life on our planet, Inspiration4 is an important milestone on that generations-long journey. 

I'm not sure Mars is the best place to build a city or that living on orbiting space stations will be practical anytime soon. 

But a few things I do know: Industrialization on Earth often comes at the detriment of the planet's delicate ecosystems, and some of that industry could be moved into space. Billionaires in space today could be the first step toward factories or power plants in orbit tomorrow that help us finally mitigate climate change. 

Also, the original space race of the 1950s through 1970s didn't just put people on the moon, it spawned loads of innovation that undergirds our civilization today. 

The GPS on your phone that gets you where you need to go and our satellite-based society that moves all sorts of information around the globe at the speed of light can be traced directly back to the Mercury and Apollo programs and the founding of NASA. 

It's exciting to imagine what parts of daily life in 2050 will owe their prominence to SpaceX and Inspiration4.