More billionaires will be shot into space this week as SpaceX owner Elon Musk beats out rival space cowboys Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson to be the first to send extremely wealthy people into low Earth orbit.
Bezos, owner and founder of Amazon, made history recently by riding a rocket into space alongside three other members of the global elite, opening new terrain into the looming reality of space tourism.
That flight only made it out of the Earth’s atmosphere and technically into space, where low gravity is experienced, however, Musk’s new venture will take people beyond the pull of the planet, enabling them to rotate above us (presumably while cackling maniacally) in what has become the world’s largest and most embarrassing ‘rocket’ measuring contest.
While space travel is enormously energy-intensive, with each launch pumping 300 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, Musk is attempting to burnish his eco-credentials in a separate deal with NASA that will see SpaceX rockets used to launch weather satellites.
Here’s what you need to know.
What Is The SpaceX Launch?
SpaceX is the space exploration company owned by Elon Musk, also the founder and owner of Telsa. They have extensive experience in sending rockets to space, having already completed several trips for NASA, bringing cargo and astronauts to the international space station.
The next SpaceX launch will bring four soon-to-be private astronauts into low Earth orbit at 10am on Wednesday — or 8pm Tuesday EDT.
The launch mission is called Inspiration4 and will see the crew ride on one of SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rockets with a Crew Dragon capsule to depths of space that no all-civilian crews have gone before.
The mission is set to mark yet another milestone in the burgeoning era of commercial space tourism and several companies are already competing for the vast sums that the uber-wealthy seem happy to part with in order to experience the weightlessness and scenery of space.
Both Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Bezos’s Blue Origin have both recently debuted astro-tourism launches, taking their founders and some high-paying guests into space.
However, those missions were ‘suborbital’, meaning they didn’t fully reach beyond the bounds of the planet and each lasted only a few minutes.
The upcoming Inspiration4 mission will see the crew stay in orbit for three days, circling the globe every 90 minutes at more than 27,400 kilometres per hour, or roughly 22 times the speed of sound.
They will be travelling at an altitude of 575 kilometers, well above the orbit of the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope.
They will take off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral and splash down in the Atlantic.
The crew on Inspiration4 are all civilians who have undertaken extensive training for the past five months. None of them are astronauts and will be piloting the spacecraft entirely alone.
That’s not quite as daunting or, frankly, insane as it sounds though, because the entire rocket and crew capsule is fully automated. That means that none of them will have anything to do with its take off or launch.
Still, Inspiration 4 is ‘captained’ by Jared Isaacman, the founder and CEO of the payment processing firm Shift4 Payments. His company handles a third of the transactions for America’s restaurants and hotels and Isaacman is also trained to fly commercial and military jets. At the age of just 38, he has a net worth of around US$2.4 billion.
We have arrived at @NASAKennedy .. it was a great morning of flying with my @inspiration4x crew. Right side is in! Standard. Expect more flights around KSC as we get closer to the big launch🚀 pic.twitter.com/Kcl2moCNvM
— Jared Isaacman (@rookisaacman) September 9, 2021
Sian Proctor is the mission ‘pilot’, a 51-year-old geology professor and former NASA astronaut candidate. Proctor won the spot on Inspiration4 through competition run by Shift4 Payments for which she opened an online store to sell her own ‘afro-futurism’ artwork. She will become one of just a handful of black female astronauts.
At 29, Hayley Arceneaux is the youngest member of the crew. Designated ‘chief medical officer’, Arceneaux is a physician assistant at St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee. At the age of 10, she was diagnosed with bone cancer but overcame the disease, dedicating her life to helping young cancer patients in the process. In a promo clip for the Netflix documentary series on the missions, Arceneaux said that she hopes to inspire cancer patients.
“I’m getting to show them what life can look like after cancer,” she said.
Finally, mission ‘specialist’ is Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old US Air Force veteran and aerospace data engineer. Sembroski works for the aerospace and weapons company Lockheed Martin and won his spot on the mission through a sweepstakes that gained 72,000 applicants and raised over $100 million in donations to St. Jude’s hospital.
All of the crew have undergone rigorous preparations for the mission, including altitude fitness, G-force training, experiences in microgravity, and simulation training.
While the whole thing is essentially funded by one billionaire — Isaacman — to the tune of US$200 million, and uses the space technology of another billionaire, it is a marked point of difference for space tourism.
SpaceX hopes that this ‘proof of concept’ flight will pave the way for more missions to the outer reaches of the planet, several of which are already planned in the coming months.
How is This Eco-Friendly?
SpaceX, in their press and promotional literature, has attempted to emphasise the fact that this is not just a simple space jaunt. The crew will apparently undertake serious scientific experiments with “potential applications for human health on Earth and during future spaceflights”.
Despite this and the fact that SpaceX rockets and crew capsules are reusable, it’s not exactly green as a concept.
This may explain why Musk is keen to highlight his company’s capacity for environmental benevolence with his agreement to launch weather satellites for NASA.
SpaceX and the national American space organisation have penned a US$152 million deal that will see the private company use its re-usable rockets to put in place satellites to monitor atmospheric movements on Earth.
It’s part of NASA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) missions that aim to get more accurate atmospheric measurements of the weather, oceans, and environment. It will also involve real-time mapping of lightning and solar activity.
The GOES-R missions are basically to better predict the chances of serious weather events like hurricanes and fires, things that have been exacerbated by climate change.
In many ways, the expenditure of more carbon into the atmosphere to have a better chance of mitigating the effects of climate change seems redundant however if the technology can be used to better alert us to the dangers of unrestrained carbon emissions it may prove more beneficial in the long term.