SpaceX Inspiration4 Updates: The Crew Spends Their First Day in Orbit

After a successful launch on Wednesday, the first space crew with no professional astronauts aboard is circling Earth.,

Sept. 16, 2021, 3:35 p.m. ET

After a successful launch on Wednesday, the first space crew with no professional astronauts aboard is circling Earth.

ImageSpaceX tweeted a view of Crew Dragon's cupola.
SpaceX tweeted a view of Crew Dragon’s cupola.Credit…SpaceX

The crew of the Inspiration4 mission is flying safely around Earth, SpaceX said in a Twitter update Wednesday afternoon.

But the altitude that they are orbiting at is not as unusual as some space commentators, including me, have said.

Andy Tran, a production supervisor for SpaceX, spoke during a livestream Tuesday covering the launch of the Inspiration4 mission: “They’re going to be higher than the International Space Station, higher than the Hubble Telescope, honestly higher than any humans other than those who went to the moon.”

That is not true, and I goofed in including that erroneous information in my stories yesterday. A former Times editor of mine often talked of facts that were “too good to be true,” and this was one of those.

The Hubble Space Telescope being deployed on a mission in 1990. That flight, and another to repair the telescope in 1999, took astronauts higher than the highest altitude of the Inspiration4 mission.Credit…NASA/Smithsonian Institution/Lockheed Corporation

The Inspiration4 crew is as much as 366 miles above Earth, which is more than 100 miles higher than the International Space Station. And they are farther from the planet than most astronauts who have gone to space since the end of NASA’s Apollo program in the 1970s.

But the space shuttle mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990 was in an elliptical orbit that went as high as 386 miles above Earth. And in 1999, a mission to repair and upgrade that telescope was in an orbit that reached an altitude of 378 miles. Astronauts on both missions traveled farther from Earth than the crew members of Inspiration4.

All of this illustrates how close humans have remained to home since the end of Apollo. The moon is almost 240,000 miles from Earth. Since Apollo 17 returned in 1972, no one has traveled more than 400 miles away from the planet, and that will not change until the first crewed mission of NASA’s Artemis program, which is tentatively scheduled for late 2023.

Unlike with NASA missions, there is little information about the Inspiration4 crew. SpaceX reported on Twitter that the crew members are “healthy, happy and resting comfortably,” that they had performed the first round of scientific research, and that they had eaten a couple of meals and slept.

SpaceX also tweeted a photograph of the glass dome at the top of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, although there was no one inside it at the time.

As private space travelers and not NASA employees, the SpaceX crew can choose to maintain a veil of privacy around their activities. More images and video will eventually be shown in the final episode of a Netflix documentary series about the mission. It is also possible that the crew could participate in live public broadcasts from space, but no plans have been announced yet.

Chinese astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo inside the Shenzhou-12 as it launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China in June.Credit…via Reuters

Outer space got a little more crowded on Wednesday night.

The four-person crew of SpaceX’s Inspiration4 raised the number of people in space to 14, edging out a record set in 2009 when 13 people lived on the International Space Station after the space shuttle Endeavour docked there.

This year, though, the 14 humans in space are on three separate missions.

Shenzhou-12, from China, is completing a 90-day trip and is carrying three astronauts. And Expedition 65, from NASA, launched in April with a team of seven, who are currently at the space station.

The “Commander & Benefactor” of the Inspiration4 is Jared Isaacman, a high school dropout who became a billionaire founder of a payments processing company. He follows fellow billionaires Richard Branson, the entrepreneur behind the Virgin companies, and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who went this year.

Billionaires like them, and the private companies they fund, have made the cost of space travel cheaper, according to Dr. Elliott Bryner, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. As those costs go down, the number of people who are in space will go up, he said.

“The thing that has been barring us from going to space is cost,” Dr. Bryner said on Wednesday night. “With private launches, the number of people who can go to space will continue to increase.”

“It’s still a millionaire’s game, but at least you don’t have to be a superpower country,” he said.

Credit… SpaceX

The Crew Dragon is a gumdrop-shaped capsule — an upgraded version of SpaceX’s original Dragon capsule, which has been used many times to carry cargo. It is roughly comparable in size to the Apollo capsule that took NASA astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and ’70s. Earlier NASA capsules — Mercury and Gemini — were considerably smaller.

The capsule has more interior space than a minivan, but less than a studio apartment. And there is a bathroom. As you can probably imagine, you and some of your friends may be able to pile into a space like that for a brief time, but much longer could become uncomfortable.

So far, NASA’s missions in Crew Dragon have spent no more than about a day orbiting the planet before docking with the space station. Inspiration4’s crew will spend three days aboard.

“It’s like an extended camping trip,” Mr. Sembroski said during Tuesday’s news conference. “You’re in a camper van with some of your closest friends for three days.”

The crew members will be able to pull out sleeping bags “and strap yourself in so you don’t float into each other during the middle of the night,” he said.

“There will be a couple unique challenges maintaining privacy here and there,” Mr. Sembroski said. He said they had received good tips from NASA astronauts who previously traveled to space in the capsule.

“We’ll let you know more about how successful they were when we come back,” Mr. Sembroski said.

While food for spaceflight has made great advancements in quality since the 1960s, dining may not be a highlight of this orbital trip. In the Netflix documentary about Inspiration4, Ms. Arceneaux said during a taste test that she didn’t think she’d eat much in space. SpaceX has also not said who prepared the meals for this mission.

One of the planned meals is cold pizza, Mr. Sembroski revealed during an episode of an Axios podcast that followed their training for the mission.

“The cold pizza better be packed, because that was my order,” Dr. Proctor said on Tuesday. “Food and mood is so important. So I think for us it was really important working with SpaceX to get food that made us feel comfortable.”

Credit…SpaceX

For most of the mission, if nothing goes wrong, the Crew Dragon spacecraft will operate autonomously with the assistance of SpaceX’s mission control at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.

The astronauts’ main task is to monitor the spacecraft’s systems. In the case of malfunctions, however, the crew, especially Mr. Isaacman as the commander and Dr. Proctor as the pilot, have learned how to take over the flying of Resilience.

Jared Isaacman, left, and Hayley Arceneaux before the launch on Wednesday.Credit…John Raoux/Associated Press

Mr. Isaacman has declined to say how much he is paying for this orbital trip, only that it was less than the $200 million he hopes to raise for St. Jude Children’s Hospital with an accompanying fund-raising drive.

Jared Isaacman, Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor and Hayley Arceneaux arriving in Florida as they began their training for the launch this year.Credit…John Kraus/Agence France-Presse, via Inspiration4

For the mission, Mr. Isaacman named the four Crew Dragon seats to reflect positive aspects of humanity: leadership, hope, generosity and prosperity.

“We set out from the start to deliver a very inspiring message,” Mr. Isaacman said during a news conference on Tuesday, “and chose to do that through an interesting crew selection process.”

As commander for Inspiration4, Mr. Isaacman fills the leadership seat.

Mr. Isaacman gave two of the four seats to St. Jude. The hope seat was earmarked for a St. Jude health care worker, and hospital officials chose Ms. Arceneaux, who quickly said yes to the offer.

Another seat, generosity, was raffled off to raise money for the hospital. Mr. Sembroski entered, donating $50, but he did not win the sweepstakes, which helped raise $13 million for St. Jude. A friend of his, though, did — an old college buddy from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. The friend, who remains anonymous, decided not to go to space but, knowing about Mr. Sembroski’s enthusiasm, transferred the prize to him.

“I think that just really puts me in a very special spot,” Mr. Sembroski said, “where not only do I feel very lucky to be here but I have a huge responsibility to pay that forward and show that generosity towards others, and to bring that message to everyone else.”

The last seat, prosperity, was the prize in a contest run by Mr. Isaacman’s company, Shift4 Payments. Contestants used the company’s software to design an online store and then tweeted videos describing their entrepreneurial and space dreams. (Using the software, Dr. Proctor started selling her space-related artwork, and in her video, she read a poem that she wrote.)

Hayley Arceneaux is both a physician assistant at St. Jude hospital and a former patient, which helped her recover from pediatric cancer.Credit…Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When he announced Inspiration4 in February, Mr. Isaacman said he wanted it to be more than an extraterrestrial jaunt for rich people like him. He reached out to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, which treats children at no charge and develops cures for childhood cancers as well as other diseases. Mr. Isaacman offered to use the mission as a fund-raising vehicle for St. Jude, setting a $200 million target.

“If you’re going to accomplish all those great things out in space, all that progress, then you have an obligation to do some considerable good here on Earth, like making sure you conquer childhood cancer along the way,” he said.

So far, more than $130 million has been raised including the $100 million that Mr. Isaacman is personally donating to St. Jude.

“We are elated with where we are from a fund-raising perspective,” said Richard C. Shadyac Jr., the president of ALSAC, the fund-raising organization for St. Jude. “I couldn’t be more pleased. We’ll continue to strive for that $200 million goal.”

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