A SpaceX rocket launched into orbit Wednesday evening, carrying four people, none of whom are professional astronauts, and marking the start of the first-ever tourist-only mission to Earth’s orbit.
The launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida was dramatically illuminated against the night sky with spotlights, and when the SpaceX rocket’s nine engines fired up just after 8 p.m. ET, it flooded the surrounding wetlands with a blaze of light as it soared into the upper atmosphere and put on a dramatic, ghostly light show overhead. The capsule carrying the four passengers detached from the rocket after reaching orbital speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour and began maneuvering towards it’s intended orbit.
The amateur crew, which included a self-funded billionaire, a cancer survivor, a community college teacher, and a Lockheed Martin employee, strapped into their 13-foot-wide SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule Wednesday afternoon before their SpaceX rocket roared to life and blasted the capsule into orbit. The crew will spend three days aboard their capsule as it travels through orbit before splashing down off the coast of Florida on Saturday.
The passengers will float around the capsule for the next three days as it circles the planet once every 90 minutes, traveling at more than 17,500 miles per hour, while taking in panoramic views of Earth. Their spacecraft will re-enter the atmosphere for a fiery re-entry and splash down off the coast of Florida to cap off the journey.
Splashdown is set to return on Saturday, but that could change if weather or other issues force it to return sooner or later. The capsule is fully stocked with food and supplies to last about a week.
In the last decade, this is only the third crewed launch from American soil.
Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire who personally funded the trip; Hayley Arceneux, 29, a childhood cancer survivor and current St. Jude physician assistant; Sian Procotor, 51, a geologist and community college teacher with a PhD; and Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old Lockheed Martin employee and lifelong space fan who won his seat in an online raffle
The SpaceX capsule, a 13-foot-wide, gumdrop-shaped spacecraft that detaches from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket after reaching orbital speeds and was originally built to transport NASA astronauts, will carry all four passengers for the duration of the mission.
Yes, the passengers will have to share a special zero-gravity-friendly toilet near the top of the capsule for the duration of their three days in space. There will be no showers available, and the crew will have to sleep in the same reclining seats that they will be riding in during the launch.
SpaceX hopes that this will be the first of many similar tourism missions, paving the way for a time when taking a trip to space is as common as flying. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is the company’s first step in that direction.
Despite the fact that it was designed and built under a NASA contract with the goal of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station, SpaceX now owns and operates the vehicle and is free to sell seats or entire missions to whomever it wants. As a result, SpaceX and its space tourism customers have complete control over the mission, from choosing the flight path and training regimen to deciding what foods the passengers will eat while in orbit.
Sembroski, 42, who won his ticket in a raffle, told reporters at a press conference Tuesday evening that joining the Inspiration4 mission felt like a dream come true “We’re making the rules, and we’re breaking a few that NASA used to require… We have the freedom to do things our way.”
This isn’t the first time that civilians have traveled to the edge of space. Though NASA has been hesitant to sign up non-astronauts for routine missions since the death of Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire schoolteacher killed in the Challenger disaster in 1986, a group of wealthy thrill-seekers paid their own way to the International Space Station through a company called Space Adventures in the 2000s. With his eight-day stay on the International Space Station in 2001, American investment management billionaire Dennis Tito became the first to self-fund a trip, followed by six others. They’d all reserved seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft alongside professional astronauts.
This mission, on the other hand, has been heralded as the start of a new era of space exploration, in which ordinary people, rather than government-selected astronauts and the occasional deep-pocketed adventurer, will carry the torch of space exploration.