SpaceX Inspiration4 Dives into a New Era of Space Tourism
Space tourists are back.
On Saturday night, the private astronauts prepared as their spacecraft passed through Earth’s atmosphere, deployed parachutes, and then drifted off the coast of Florida. When the capsule hit the waves, they may have heard a voice from the mission control radio: “Thanks for flying SpaceX.” As if the passengers had just landed on a runway in O’Hare instead of surviving a fiery re-entry. As if they hadn’t just spent three days flying higher than the International Space Station, with a window that looked out over the contours of entire continents.
The mission, known as Inspiration4, was the first ever spaceflight by a crew made up entirely of non-professional astronauts. The tech billionaire who chartered the trip for himself and three others paid “less than $ 200 million” for it, and for that kind of money, SpaceX allowed him to customize the experience, from the menu from food to the flight plan. The crew – businessman Jared Isaacman, geoscience professor Sian Proctor, medical assistant Hayley Arceneaux and data engineer Chris Sembroski – spent their time in orbit doing some science experiments and lounging around. generally in microgravity. They even called Tom Cruise, who plans to fly with SpaceX one day to shoot a movie about the space station.
But while money may buy you a wild trip to orbit, it cannot protect you from the forces of nature, nor guarantee that you will return home safely. Last year, when SpaceX started transporting professional astronauts to the space station on behalf of NASA, I wrote that the company is now responsible for the safety of astronauts to a degree that no private company has. never known. It is now the same for all those who reserve their own seat. As easy or safe as this mission may seem, spaceflight is dangerous.
Over the years, I have spoken with many people who have worked in the US space shuttle program, including astronauts who have flown in vehicles, and they all say the same thing about travel in the United States. space: that there will always be a bad day. That people will die. When I inquired of several retired astronauts before the launch of Inspiration4, they were excited about the mission and delighted that its crew saw Earth as before. But their position on the dangers had not changed. Beneath the glossy veneer of private space travel, with its futuristic space suits and touch screens, lies the harsh reality of risk. A series of successful missions only adds to that. Astronauts in America’s space shuttle age may know better than anyone that every new launch presents a new opportunity for disaster. As a former shuttle astronaut told me, “The shuttle was pretty routine until it blew up.
In the past, when new engineers joined SpaceX’s manned spaceflight program, they visited a special NASA room, closed to the public, where the agency keeps the debris from the space shuttle disasters that cost the world. life to 14 people. Benji Reed, senior director of human space flight programs at SpaceX, once told me that he often visited a memorial at the Kennedy Space Center when he was in town. Seven oaks form a circle, one for each astronaut who died on the Challenger in 1986, the mission that included the first “ordinary” citizen, high school teacher Christa McAuliffe.
The small, gumball-shaped SpaceX astronaut capsule is safer than the spacious, winged space shuttles. If SpaceX detects a malfunction shortly after takeoff, the Dragon capsule can pull away from the Falcon 9 rocket and head to safety. The shuttles did not have such an evacuation system; they were much more technically complex, with overloaded control panels. “You had switches literally next to each other, and if you threw in the wrong one, you could make your day a lot worse than a lot better,” Doug Hurley, a NASA astronaut, told me in 2019, when ‘he was training. to pilot SpaceX’s Dragon. The capsule, he estimated, only had about 30 manual switches and circuit breakers, compared to about 2,000 on the shuttles.
This first flight test, which Hurley and fellow NASA astronaut Bob Behnken completed last year, was quickly declared a success. The real assessment came long after the astronauts got out of the water, when engineers looked at the data and inspected the equipment. It turned out that during Hurley and Behnken’s descent into the atmosphere, the heat shield, the material that protects the capsule from the scorching conditions of re-entry, eroded more than SpaceX expected.
SpaceX officials said there was “nothing to worry about,” but the company decided to redesign part of the heat shield and also modify the capsule’s parachute, which had deployed closer to it. water than expected. It’s not uncommon for engineers to uncover a few uncomfortable truths after the flight, even some that really make them wince. “It doesn’t matter how close you get to failure, as long as you don’t cross the line,” George “Pinky” Nelson, a retired NASA astronaut once told me. Nelson participated in the last shuttle mission before the Challenger disaster and the mission that resumed the program two years later, after NASA decided it would continue to fly.
The history of the Dragon program has not been without incident. About a year before the launch of Hurley and Behnken, a Dragon capsule was destroyed in an explosion. SpaceX had performed tests on the spacecraft on the ground at Kennedy Space Center, firing its engines. The smoke could be seen for miles on the Space Coast, but SpaceX remained largely silent on the incident, declining to even comment on some up-close, widely shared video footage that showed the capsule engulfed in flames.
The Dragon capsule used by the Inspiration4 crew transported four professional astronauts to the space station last year. SpaceX hasn’t changed much other than installing a large bubble-shaped glass window so that its first private customers can get a good view. Isaacman told reporters ahead of the launch that the crew had just spoken to Musk, who “once again assured us that the entire management team is only focused on this mission and is very confident.”
Sandy Magnus, a retired astronaut who took part in the last shuttle program mission, in 2011, told me she was not worried about the Inspiration4 crew for this reason. Of course, SpaceX was going to be on high alert for its very first private astronaut flight. Reed told reporters this week that SpaceX wanted to fly paying customers “three, four, five, six times a year at least.” But another successful mission, another nice splash, doesn’t guarantee the next – it’s the lesson NASA staff tried to teach SpaceX, in briefings, meetings and conferences. Complacency kills. “Ten flights later, when it becomes routine, that’s when you really have to be careful,” Magnus said. The Challenger disaster occurred when senior NASA officials ignored warnings from engineers about a piece of hardware that could fail at very low temperatures, and although this had not happened before, the shuttle was about to take off in unusually cold weather. Years later, engineers noticed that some of the foam insulation on the shuttles had peeled off during launch, but things looked good until some of that foam damaged Columbia’s heat shield. in 2003, causing the shuttle to break during re-entry.
What will be the consequences for private space travel if the worst happens? If disaster strikes while SpaceX is transporting NASA astronauts, the agency may decide to give SpaceX another chance after a few years of careful investigation and calculation. But what if the lost astronauts are ordinary people, lured aboard by someone rich enough to invite them over? It would be SpaceX and Elon Musk. Musk has long said he envisions a future where space travel is like air travel. Franklin Chang-Díaz, a retired NASA astronaut who flew the space shuttle seven times – and is one of only two people to perform so many space flights – told me he thought the industry was moving in this direction. The fatal mistakes of early air travel led to improvements in safety, but now “most people don’t care that you’re going to be flying in a pressurized vehicle, and you’re going to be flying 30,000, 40,000 feet around. from Earth, and going at 400, 500 miles per hour, ”Chang-Díaz said. “All you want is just to have your internet and maybe something to drink.”
Space travel isn’t like that now, and won’t be for a while. It’s more like climbing Mount Everest, or some other equally extreme adventure, among the riskiest vacations humanity has to offer. In this new chapter of spaceflight, paying customers, motivated not by a sense of national duty, as the first astronauts were, but by something personal, will have to make their own risk calculations – for themselves and the family. family they could leave on Earth. . Because, as any astronaut would tell you, spaceflight is always tougher on families.
Nelson said NASA officials kept his family more closely informed as he trained for his post-Challenger mission than they had done before previous missions, in an effort to reassure them, and SpaceX has taken similar steps so far. Arceneaux, Inspiration4’s youngest astronaut, told me that a meeting with SpaceX engineers, which she attended with her mother, gave her what she needed to feel like she trusted it. ‘business. She understood the risk, but she felt as confident as possible. The general public is not mentally prepared for disaster in the same way. “I think the public deep down knows that astronauts have already been killed,” Nelson said. But it’s still a shock. “The public never expects people to die,” he said.