(Bloomberg) — A SpaceX rocket is set to launch four civilians into orbit for a three-day voyage circling the Earth, a new milestone in Elon Musk’s quest to send everyday people to the cosmos, eventually establishing a colony on Mars.
No professional astronauts will be on board. The flight is scheduled for liftoff as soon as Wednesday evening from Florida. The passengers will rely upon the SpaceX Dragon capsule’s autonomous capabilities for navigation, life support and a safe return, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. The trip, dubbed Inspiration4, will carry technology billionaire Jared Isaacman, 38, and three others into orbit aboard the Dragon.
SpaceX is touting the flight as a boundary-breaking effort to prove that ordinary, relatively fit non-astronauts can withstand the rigors of spaceflight. During their time orbiting the Earth, the crew will conduct medical research to investigate the bodily and health impacts of spaceflight.
The voyage, doubling as a charitable fundraiser for cancer research, is at its core a promotional event, with its own Netflix documentary readied ahead of the launch. The goal is to make the public, and wealthy people in particular, more comfortable with the idea of taking a space jaunt. If the flight goes according to plan — followed by similar journeys on SpaceX’s agenda over the next two years – an era in which well-heeled travelers orbit the earth or moon could eventually become relatively routine.
“I can see a future within the next decade when families are trying to decide whether to go to Disney World or to space for their summer vacations,” said Meagan Crawford, managing partner of venture capital firm Space Fund Inc., which has invested in Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
SpaceX’s flight comes two months after billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos each made brief suborbital trips to space on craft built and flown by the companies they founded, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. and Blue Origin LLC, respectively. SpaceX’s flight will mark the first time a private space company will take civilians into true orbit.
“My personal view is that a suborbital flight is like a swing on the playground versus a roller coaster in a fun park,” said Peter Beck, chief executive officer of Rocket Lab USA Inc., which is also building a rocket called Neutron designed to carry humans to deep space in the late 2020s. “If I had a choice, a swing’s fine but if you want the real experience go ride the roller coaster, ” Beck said.
Isaacman, the founder and chief executive officer of payment processer Shift4 Payments Inc., worked with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee to select three people with compelling backgrounds and personal stories to join his flight. First they offered a spot to Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a child cancer survivor who today works as a physician’s assistant at St. Jude. They raffled off another place on the spaceship to raise money for the hospital. The winner was Chris Sembroski, 42, an Air Force veteran who works in the aerospace industry in Seattle. Sian Proctor, 51, a geoscience professor in Phoenix and a finalist for the 2009 NASA astronaut class, won the fourth spot in a business competition organized by Shift4.
The trip cost Isaacman $200 million, according to a recent Time article, in addition to a $100 million donation pledge he has made to St. Jude. Isaacman has declined to reveal financial details about the voyage, a spokesman for the Inspiration4 event said.
Investors are betting whatever the total amount raised for Inspiration4, it will be a drop in the bucket compared to what’s coming. Space tourism will mushroom into a $4 billion annual market by 2030, according to UBS Group AG analysts including Myles Walton. The bank raised its projection in July from a 2019 estimate of $3 billion, citing technical progress, an influx of capital and more ambitious plans.
“We’re finding out what the addressable market is,” says Andrew Chanin, co-founder and chief executive officer of Procure AM, which runs a space exchange-traded fund that holds Virgin Galactic shares among others. “What I’m most excited to see is how these costs come down over time.”
Virgin Galactic resumed ticket sales last month for $450,000 each to build upon its backlog of 600 customers; Blue Origin said nearly 7,600 people registered to bid for a June auction for a seat to fly with Bezos. The winning bidder, who remains anonymous, paid $28 million. Those lofty prices aren’t likely to decline any time soon but space travel could become more democratized if additional launch companies and flight frequency were to boost competition.
“Right now it would appear demand far exceeds supply for human spaceflight,” said Dylan Taylor, chief executive of Denver-based Voyager Space Holdings Inc., which owns stakes in various space companies including Nanoracks.
At least one other wealthy person paid his way on a space excursion ahead of Bezos and Branson. In 2001, American businessman Dennis Tito, a former NASA engineer, purchased passage for $20 million to the International Space Station from Russia’s space agency for an eight-day trip.
To date, SpaceX has ferried 10 professional astronauts to the International Space Station and returned six safely, while the remaining four are still in orbit. SpaceX plans a second civilian flight in January for Houston-based Axiom Space Inc., which is sending four people to the International Space Station aboard the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon. The company, the creation of former NASA astronauts, intends to offer more such trips. And in 2023, Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa plans to take eight artists with him on a trip around the moon in SpaceX’s larger, next-generation Starship rocket.
Hanging over all the bold projections and optimism is the distant yet still vivid memory for anyone who lived through it of the Space Shuttle Challenger crash in 1986. During that ill-fated 73-second trip, New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe perished along with six NASA astronauts. She would have been the first civilian in space and the Challenger explosion put an end to any further civilian trips to space.
The Russian Soyuz and Falcon 9 launches are arguably safer now than in decades past, though far from infallible. But even if a similar tragedy were to befall the Inspiration4 crew, experts say human space flight won’t be deterred.
“There’s enough broad-based understanding of the potential risks and the promise of space commerce that if there were an unfortunate accident people will continue to execute against making that dream a reality,” said Andrew Rush, president of Redwire Corp., a space infrastructure and services company. “Inspiration4 is the vanguard of independent, private folks going to orbit and experiencing space. This is a really exciting time.”