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16 Sep 2021 22:30
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  •   Home > News > International

    SpaceX Inspiration4 mission, the first ever all-civilian flight to space, ready for take-off

    The first space flight without a professional astronaut on board is due to blast off tomorrow, representing "a new era for human space flight and exploration".


    The first space flight without a professional astronaut on board is due to blast off tomorrow.

    The SpaceX fully automated Crew Dragon spacecraft will orbit Earth on a three-day trip, dubbed the Inspiration4 mission, with an entrepreneur, a childhood cancer survivor and two sweepstake winners on board.

    The spacecraft is due to take off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:02pm local time on Wednesday night — that's 10:02am AEST on Thursday morning.

    Once launched, it will soar to an altitude of 575 kilometres — just above where the Hubble Space Telescope currently sits.

    The flight's benefactor says the mission "represents a new era for human space flight and exploration".

    But how did this space flight eventuate?

    Bankrolled by a billionaire

    The flight has a private benefactor — 38-year-old Jared Isaacman, an American entrepreneur who started the payment-processing company Shift4 Payments when he was 16.

    Mr Isaacman himself is a pilot, and he also founded the tactical aircraft training centre Draken International.

    He believes space should be more accessible, and theorises that investing in space now will make it more affordable in the future.

    "Because it's so expensive, space has been the exclusive domain of world superpowers and the elite that they select," he said.

    "It just shouldn't stay that way."

    The exact cost of the flight has not been disclosed, but a seat on the Crew Dragon spacecraft reportedly cost about $75 million.

    Separately, the flight is also serving as a fundraiser for St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Tennessee.

    Alongside monetary contributions, some companies have made donations that will be auctioned off upon Inspiration4's return — think things like sending 32 kilograms of hops to space, which will be sold as space beer back on Earth.

    Mr Isaacman has already pledged $US100 million to St Jude, and is hoping to fundraise another $US100 million.

    Who else is on the flight?

    Mr Isaacman is taking up one of the four seats, and offered the second seat to a woman who works at St Jude hospital as a physician's assistant.

    Hayley Arceneaux, 29, is set to become the youngest American to have flown into space, but she will also become the first person to wear a prosthesis in space.

    She survived a bone cancer diagnosis at age 10, and much of her left thigh bone has been replaced with a titanium rod.

    She now wears a prosthesis, and as such, her SpaceX capsule seat has been adjusted to accommodate her knee.

    The other two seats on the flight went to contest winners — geoscience professor and pilot Sian Proctor, 51, who beat out 200 other entrants in a Shift4 Payments competition, and data engineer Chris Sembroski, 42, a former Air Force missileman.

    It was actually Mr Sembroski's friend who won the seat after donating to the St Jude fundraiser, but he passed it on.

    What are they flying in?

    The Inspiration4 crew will be in SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft, which will detatch from the Falcon 9 rocket — a reusable rocket manufactured by SpaceX.

    The Crew Dragon spacecraft is the very same one NASA used to send astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) last year.

    Sitting at 8.1 metres high and 4 metres in diameter, the Crew Dragon has two windows and a newly installed glass dome at the top of the capsule.

    Privacy is at a minimum — there are no sleeping compartments or work stations, and a curtain covers the toilet.

    Once in the air, the Inspiration4 crew will take blood samples and conduct other medical research.

    On the menu will be cold pizza, and standard astronaut fare — think pre-packaged and freeze-dried foods.

    While NASA isn't involved at all in SpaceX's first private flight, the mission will set off from a launch pad used by NASA crews.

    It will also land in the Atlantic Ocean near the Florida coast, like its predecessors.

    Have they been training?

    You bet.

    The Inspiration4 crew members have been undergoing extensive training since March, "modeled after the curriculum NASA astronauts use to prepare for SpaceX missions", according to Reuters.

    As well as preparing physically by hiking up a snowy Mount Rainier in Washington, the crew completed centrifuge training, altitude chamber training, have sampled brief bursts of weightlessness aboard modified aircraft, and have taken rapid spins in fighter jets.

    They also spent time in a SpaceX capsule simulator practising the launch and re-entry operations.

    "We definitely had some Apollo 13-like simulation rides home where virtually everything was broken, and everybody made it back. So I think we passed all the tests," Mr Isaacson said.

    Is space tourism the way of the future?

    Mr Isaacman certainly hopes so.

    This SpaceX flight is the fourth for the Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is essentially open for hire from people like Mr Isaacman, and NASA.

    “This is the first step toward a world where everyday people can go and venture among the stars," he said.

    One of the huge drawbacks of space tourism is, of course, the cost.

    This year already, both Amazon boss Jeff Bezos and Virgin's Richard Branson have been on quick joyrides to the edge of space.

    The cost of sending Bezos's Blue Origin New Shepard spacecraft up for 10 minutes wasn't disclosed, but the fourth seat on the flight was auctioned off for $38 million.

    The waitlist for the latter's Virgin Galactic flight is sitting at more than 600 reservations, at $340,000 a pop.

    SpaceX founder Elon Musk also has two tourist flights to the International Space Station planned in 2022.

    When the first commercial NASA SpaceX crewed flight launched last year to the ISS, Anthony Murfett, deputy head of the Australian Space Agency, predicted that the sky would be the limit.

    "We've heard for years that commercial companies are looking to undertake space activities and undertake human space flight, but we are about to see that realised," Mr Murfett said.

    "It shows the capability does exist in the industry, and that a commercial company can take humans to low-Earth orbit."

    And, while once opposed to space tourism, NASA is also onboard.

    "I can't wait for them to fly, and fly safely and fly often," NASA's commercial spaceflight director, Phil McAlister, said.

    ABC/wires


    ABC




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