The first fully commercial spaceflight is underway, as an amateur crew of four reached orbit on Wednesday. Here’s what to expect from the groundbreaking mission and how you can follow the events online.
As dusk settled over Florida yesterday (September 15, 2021), a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Kennedy Space Center’s storied Launch Complex 39A. The Inspiration4 launch was hardly routine, however, as the Crew Dragon’s four occupants, Jared Isaacman (the billionaire entrepreneur who paid for all four seats), Sian Proctor, Chris Sembroski, and Hayley Arceneaux are all private citizens, making this the first fully commercial mission to orbit.
The crew is now in space, but there’s no time to waste. With just three days available before their scheduled return to Earth, the quartet will embark on a full slate of activities, as virtually every minute of their time aboard the Resilience Crew Dragon is accounted for.
Sadly, SpaceX will not be providing continuous coverage of the Inspiration4 mission. But as mission manager Scott “Kidd” Poteet told Spaceflight Now, we can expect some live events in the coming days, including live chats with patients and staff at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and some undisclosed “surprises.” The team will also perform health-related experiments and capture video for a TIME Studios documentary that’s currently running on Netflix. The first four episodes of the documentary are already streaming, with the fifth and final episode premiering on September 30.
Inspiration4 and SpaceX have not immediately responded to our request for more information about the mission, such as an itinerary or upcoming press conferences. That said, there are several places online where you can track what’s happening.
The Inspiration4 website is being updated regularly, and you can track the mission on social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. St. Jude has a YouTube channel that’s also worth following (Inspiration4 aims to raise $200 million for the hospital, where Arceneaux, a pediatric cancer survivor, works as a physician assistant). To be extra thorough, be sure to follow SpaceX on Twitter, and the boss himself, Elon Musk. The SpaceX launch page has a neat feature showing the capsule’s current position in space.
The modified Crew Dragon features a large, three-layer plexiglass dome known as the Dragon Cupola. A tweet from SpaceX provides an image of the window, giving us an idea of what the astronauts will be seeing. Given the limited space in Resilience, this same area will serve double duty as the toilet—albeit a toilet with an astronomical view. A curtain will allow for privacy when the astronauts perform their business up there.
When not drooling at Earth or space pooping, the crew can spend some time on personal activities. For Proctor, a geology teacher with a lifelong ambition of becoming an astronaut, that will involve painting in watercolor and writing poetry. Sembroski, a U.S. Air Force veteran and data engineer, plans to play his ukulele and serenade the crew (the old Alien tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream,” may suddenly become very pertinent). The crew will also eat together, including special comfort foods brought for each member. Proctor, for example, is looking forward to some cold pizza.
There is some serious business to be done, however. The crew will perform a number of health-related experiments, such as tracking ECG activity, running blood tests, and performing balance and perception tests. As for piloting duties, the crew won’t have to worry about that, as the Crew Dragon operates autonomously. That said, the crew could step in and execute emergency commands should the situation require.
After three days of this, the Crew Dragon will perform a re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere and splash down off the coast of Florida. The soft landing is scheduled for around 7:00 p.m. EDT on Saturday, September 18.
The Inspiration4 mission has already led to some interesting records and milestones. This is SpaceX’s fourth crewed Crew Dragon mission but the first with no NASA astronauts onboard. Inspiration4 is the first mission since the 2009 STS-125 Space Shuttle mission in which astronauts have gone into orbit but didn’t dock with the ISS. Circling 363.5 miles (585 km) above Earth, this is the farthest that astronauts have been since those Shuttle missions to repair Hubble. This is also a distance record for Crew Dragon.
With yesterday’s launch, the human population of low Earth orbit is now 14—and that’s a record. The previous record, 13, happened in 2009, when the Space Shuttle Endeavor docked to the ISS. The 14 astronauts currently in space include three Chinese astronauts aboard the new Tiangong space station, the seven members of ISS Expedition 65, and the four Inspiration4 crew members.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly described Hayley Arceneaux as a nurse assistant.