Rather than docking with the International Space Station (ISS) like other SpaceX manned missions, the Crew Dragon spacecraft will remain in low-earth orbit for three days on its own. The crew will eat, drink, sleep and use the toilet in a confined spacecraft called the Resilience, which boasts an interior volume about three times that of a large vehicle. To keep them busy, the spacecraft’s docking port, which would normally be used to connect to the ISS, has been converted to glass domeproviding the crew with magnificent panoramic views of the Earth and the universe beyond.
Other than that, mission objectives are limited. Several scientific experiments are planned, but the most important aspect of the mission is what will be No happen. In particular, none of the crew will directly pilot the spacecraft. Instead, it will be controlled autonomously and with flight control on the ground. This is a non-trivial change, McDowell explains, and there are risks. “For the first time, if the automatic systems don’t work, you could be in serious trouble,” he says. “What this shows is increased confidence in the software and automated control systems that allow you to manage unaccompanied tourists.”
All of this together makes the launch of Inspiration4 an exciting moment in human space flight, although preliminary attempts have been made in the past. In the 1980s, NASA hoped to launch something similar – the Space Flight Participant Program, which aims to enable various individuals to fly into space in spaceships. “It felt like some astronauts were a little reticent in their flight descriptions,” says program author Alan Ludwig, who directed the program. NASA wanted people who could better convey the experience and chose a teacher, journalist and artist.
However, the program ended tragically. Its first member, Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, died in a space shuttle. Challenger the 1986 explosion, along with six other crew members. The program was canceled, and the space shuttle program as a whole stalled. Experts once assumed it would carry out hundreds of missions a year, but only 110 launches were made over the next 25 years, until the shuttles were decommissioned in 2011.
Most of space travel will remain the business of professional astronauts and very wealthy people. If you are not rich, you will still be limited to applying for competitions or hoping for a ticket from a wealthy benefactor – perhaps not in the glorious future of space travel that many have dreamed of.
But Inspiration4 shows that opportunities for more “ordinary” people to go into space, while few, are quite rare. “This is an important milestone in human access,” says space historian John Logsdon, professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “In a very simplistic sense, this means that anyone can go.”
You won’t be flying a Pan Am space plane on your way to a giant rotating space hotel just yet, but who has to say what the future holds. “This is a completely new industry, in its infancy, and we are seeing the first steps,” says Forczyk. “We don’t know how far he’ll go.”