SpaceX launches Inspiration4, first all-private orbital mission

by Ian Atkinson

SpaceX has successfully launched the first-ever all-private orbital mission, Inspiration4. The first-of-its-kind flight saw four private astronauts take flight on a Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon ahead of a three-day stay in Low Earth Orbit. The flight is part of a large fundraiser for St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital, a pediatric cancer hospital.

Liftoff, from historic pad LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center took place at the opening of the five-hour launch window at 8:02 PM EDT on September 15 (00:02 UTC September 16).

Inspiration4 was started and entirely funded by Jared Isaacman, CEO of the online payment company Shift4 Payments. Isaacman earned a bachelor’s degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is a pilot in his free time. He created the mission to raise awareness and funds for St. Jude’s, a no-cost hospital to treat and research pediatric diseases, mainly cancer. Isaacman himself donated $100 million to the hospital apart from the fundraiser. He will serve as mission commander.

Each of the four seats on the mission represents a virtue. Isaacman’s is “Leadership.” The three other seats on Dragon were bookmarked for a St. Jude’s healthcare worker, a donor to the fundraiser, and an entrepreneur who created a shop on Shift4.

The crew of Inspiration4 in their spacesuits during a dress rehearsal before launch. Clockwise from top: Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, Chris Sembroski, and Dr. Sian Proctor – via Inspiration4/John Kraus

The second seat was assigned to Hayley Arceneaux, who herself is a survivor of childhood cancer. She now works at St. Jude’s – the same hospital she received cancer treatment from – as a physician’s assistant for leukemia and lymphoma patients. Her seat will represent “Hope,” and she will act as the Medical Officer and a Mission Specialist onboard.

The third seat will be taken by Chris Sembroski. Sembroski was interested in space all his life, and served in the US Air Force, servicing and maintaining Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). He currently works as an engineer at Lockheed Martin.

Sembroski donated to the raffle, but a close friend was chosen to fly on the mission. Said friend was unable to fly, so they recommended that Sembroski go instead. His seat will represent “Generosity,” and he will be the second Mission Specialist on the flight.

Finally, the fourth seat was assigned to Dr. Sian Proctor. Dr. Proctor has been working in the spaceflight field all her life and was a finalist in NASA’s 2009 astronaut selection. She has performed several analog spaceflights, where she and a team stay in a remote place for a long period of time to conduct research on how humans will live on another world, cut off from Earth.

Dr. Proctor is currently a professor of geoscience at South Mountain Community College in Arizona. She started a shop on Shift4, and was selected by a panel of judges. Her seat will represent “Prosperity,” and she will serve as the mission’s Pilot.

While Dragon will fly the entire mission in an autonomous state, Isaacman and Proctor are trained to take over should anything go wrong with the computers. Dragon has manual control capabilities and physical buttons for critical tasks, such as deploying the parachutes.

The controls and crew interfaces in Crew Dragon. Very few manual controls and more touchscreen interfaces than any other orbital crew vehicle – via Jack Beyer for NSF/L2

Aside from being a fundraiser, the mission will also serve as a sort of mini-laboratory, conducting research for St. Jude’s and other organizations. The crew will conduct experiments, record biometrics, and take samples to learn about how the human body reacts to being in space.

As previously stated, this flight is the first-ever where no crew members are trained astronauts. Commercial orbital spaceflight has occurred for decades, however, commercial astronauts have always flown as passengers alongside trained and experienced astronauts. Dragon’s automation and minimalist controls allow it to fly with a full crew of non-professional astronauts.

The crew will be flying inside Crew Dragon C207, named Resilience by its previous crew. Resilience flew to the International Space Station (ISS) on November 16, 2020 as part of the Crew-1 mission, and returned to Earth on May 2, 2021.

Since Inspiration4 won’t be docking to the ISS, its docking port was not needed. As such, SpaceX removed it, and instead replaced it with a large glass dome for the crew to view Earth from. The dome was designed for the Inspiration4 flight, but it likely will see more use in the future.

Resilience was lifted partway to orbit by Falcon 9 first stage B1062, making its third flight. B1062 previously flew two GPS missions from Space Launch Complex 40, numbers four and five. Both times, it landed downrange on an Autonomous Spaceport Droneship (ASDS).

For this mission, B1062 and Resilience lifted off from LC-39A, where SpaceX launches all crewed missions. The first stage performed a downrange landing on SpaceX’s ASDS Just Read The Instructions. Dragon was inserted into a 200km parking orbit just under nine minutes after liftoff. Dragon will later raise its orbital altitude to 575km, higher than both the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope.

The crew will spend the next three days in orbit, enjoying views of the Earth and conducting research.

On the final day, the crew will put their spacesuits back on and prepare for re-entry. Dragon’s trunk will be jettisoned and the capsule will fire four of its Draco engines to deorbit. Resilience will enter the atmosphere over the Gulf of Mexico and splash down either in the Gulf or offshore from Cape Canaveral. The decision for the landing zone will be made during the flight, dependent on the weather in the two landing areas.

The crew will then either ride the recovery ship back to Cape Canaveral for post-flight activities or be airlifted.

After Inspiration4, SpaceX’s next crewed flight will be the Crew-3 flight to the International Space Station (ISS), currently scheduled to launch on October 31, 2021. A brand new Dragon capsule, expected to be C210, will carry American astronauts Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, and Kayla Barron, as well as European astronaut Matthias Maurer, to the ISS for a six-month stay.

SpaceX also has a crewed mission for the company Space Adventures, to fly in late 2021 or early 2022. In addition, four Axiom Space space tourism flights will take place between 2022 and 2023.

(Lead photo via Stephen Marr for NSF)

Related Articles