SpaceX Inspiration4 mission blasts off on history-making journey to orbit
The Crew Dragon carrying four "everyday people" punches through the Florida night sky in a historic first.
Jackson RyanFormer Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Add four more names to the short list of human beings who've traveled beyond the edge of Earth. On Wednesday evening, commander Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski blasted into space aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon as part of the Inspiration4 mission.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 engines roared to life at 5:03 p.m. PT and blazed a trail through the Florida night sky. It's the first time a mission has launched a crew composed of private citizens to orbit -- there are no professional astronauts on board. Hollering and cheering were heard during the livestream as the raucous team at SpaceX celebrated each milestone of the launch.
At around 10 minutes in, the Falcon 9 rocket returned to Earth, landing on a SpaceX droneship parked in the Atlantic Ocean. It was a flawless return, a feat that has become customary for the staple reusable booster in Elon Musk's SpaceX fleet.
Two and a half minutes after the first stage came back to Earth, Crew Dragon separated from the second stage. As the livestream camera cut to views inside the spacecraft, a plush golden retriever doll began floating around the cockpit -- a mascot for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which the mission aims to raise $200 million for.
"Few have come before, and many are about to follow," Isaacman said in his first communication with SpaceX mission control after launch.
"The door's open now, and it's pretty incredible," he said.
Civilians, tourists, astronauts
Space has seen a number of high-profile, incredibly rich tourists in the past few months. The so-called "billionaire space race" kicked off in July, when Richard Branson rode his Virgin Galactic space plane to the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere. Shortly after, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos rode his rocket a little further. Whether they made it to "space," though, has been hotly debated. Most space watchers agree these short suborbital trips aren't quite the same as getting into low Earth orbit.
There will be no debate about the Inspiration4 mission. This flight takes the crew of four higher than Bezos or Branson and is different from those flights in key ways, even if it was bankrolled by another billionaire in Isaacman.
When SpaceX announced the mission in February, Isaacman bought up the entire flight and donated three of the Crew Dragon seats to "individuals from the general public." He offered up two seats to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, handpicking Arceneaux, a childhood cancer survivor who now works as a physician's assistant at the hospital and acts as the medical officer on Inspiration4.
The second was offered in a raffle for those who made a donation to the hospital. The seat was won by a friend of Sembroski, who gifted him the seat. Sembroski is the mission specialist and will help manage payload science experiments.
Proctor, a geology professor at South Mountain Community College, won an online competition run by Isaacman to round out the crew. She is the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft.
The mission is more than just a joyride for space tourists, though. All four members have undergone months of intense training, far more than those who will fly with Bezos's Blue Origin or Branson's Virgin Galactic, and they'll be performing science experiments during the three-day trip.
The spacecraft will orbit 585 kilometers (around 363 miles) above the Earth, about 100 miles farther out than the International Space Station. Physiological data of the crew will be collected to assess changes in behavior and cognition, and there will be "research grade" analysis of heart rate, blood oxygen saturation and how well the team members sleep.
The Crew Dragon is outfitted with a brand new cupola, a transparent dome at its apex, that will give the passengers incredible views of the Earth. It's the first time the cupola has been used in flight -- the space is usually reserved for ISS docking tools. Expect to see some breathtaking photos of our giant blue marble in the coming days.
In flying above the orbital height of the ISS, SpaceX and the crew are taking a risk, too. The Dragon capsule, whether outfitted for crew or for supply runs, hasn't ever reached such heights. Testing its limits on Earth is one thing, but space is inherently risky -- as countless NASA missions attest to since the Mercury era.
The team is going to spend three days in orbit, making one full lap of the Earth every 90 minutes. It's expected to re-enter Earth's atmosphere on Saturday, blazing hot, before splashing down off the Florida coast.
It's also one of the busiest times for human spaceflight in history. For the next few days, 14 human beings will be in orbit, with three members stationed on China's space station, seven on the ISS and now the four on the Inspiration4 flight. This has been touted as an all-time record for the space population, but that's debated. During Branson's suborbital flight, the number of people in "space" was often quoted as "16," but the definition of where space begins is a little blurry.
Still, if the door's now open for private citizens to get to space, as Isaacman believes, that record will be shattered over the next decade.