2021 is the year of commercial space travel. First, Richard Branson flies up to a height of 86 km (53 mi) in his Virgin Galactic spacecraft. In the very next week, Jeff Bezos ventures into the space with Blue Origins at a height of 106 km (66 mi). But Elon Musk’s SpaceX set out to overshadow the two billionaire-boy joyrides by launching the world’s first all-civilian crew into the Earth’s orbit on 15 September 2021.
Inspiration4, the name of this historical mission, consists of four non-professional astronauts – people like you and me – who travelled to space and orbited the earth for three days. They reached a maximum vertical height of 586 km (364 mi), 178 km (110 mi) higher than the International Space Station. This journey marks the first actual step towards life being multi-planetary.
In conjunction with the space flight, the mission also raised funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – an institution focused on treating childhood cancer – adding a humanitarian aspect to the mission.
This article will look at the pioneering of Inspiration4, selection of crew members, preparation to go to space, and the mission details.
How It All Began?
The story starts with billionaire Jared Isaacman, the commander of Inspiration4 crew, the founder and CEO of the multi-billion dollar company, Shift4 Payments. He is also an aerobatic pilot who performed more than 100 airshows. He pitched the idea of an all-civilian space flight to SpaceX for something to do in the future, only to realize that SpaceX is more prepared than he had thought. Given his thrill of living on the edge, he not only accepted SpaceX’s offer for the role of mission commander, but he also funded the entire mission for an undisclosed amount.
However, he did not want this mission to be another billionaire-boy joyride. He took this opportunity to initiate a fundraising goal of 200 million dollars for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and he donated the first hundred million.
As the mission objective is to convey an impactful message more than just going to space, Isaacman came up with four mission pillars – Hope, Generosity, Prosperity, and Leadership. Each crew must represent one of these pillars to earn their ticket to space. Let’s look at the crew members and how they were selected.
Hope – Hayley Arceneaux
For the representation of Hope, Isaacman asked St. Jude to find a cancer survivor who is doing well in life. St. Jude presents Haley Arceneaux, a pediatric cancer survivor and a Physician Assistant at St. Jude. She was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 10 and was treated at St. Jude. In an effort to give back to the community, she joined St. Jude to help other kids fight cancer.
Imagine children fighting cancer at St. Jude seeing their fellow combatant go to space. What can give them more hope than this? At age 29, Arceneaux is the youngest American and the first person with a prosthesis to go to space.
Generosity – Christopher Sembroski
For Generosity, Isaacman held a raffle draw where participants could enter by donating at least $10 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. While Christopher Sembroski made a donation, he did not win the raffle. Instead, his friend won it who decided to give the seat to Sembroski. The contest was a showcase of generosity was displayed in this draw – a collective donation of 9 million dollars and a wholesome act of letting a fellow friend realize his dreams.
Sembroski is a Data Engineer at Lockheed Martin and a US Air Force veteran. He is 42 years old.
Prosperity – Dr. Sian Proctor
Isaacman believed an entrepreneur would be the best representation of Prosperity. So his company, Shift4 Payments, held a contest where participants had to upload a video on Twitter, showcasing their business venture and relating it to space. The winner, Dr. Sian Proctor, was selected by a panel of independent judges.
Dr. Proctor is a geoscientist and a science communicator. She had actually applied to be an astronaut at NASA back in 2009. She was one of the 47 finalists from 3500 participants. Despite coming this close, her dreams were shattered when she did not qualify. Who knew 11 years later, not only would she fulfil her dream, but she would make history!
At age 51, she is the fourth black woman to go to space.
Leadership – Jared Isaacman
Coming back to the mission commander, Jared Isaacman represents the pillar of leadership. He issued the commands on board and managed communication with the ground control. As mentioned earlier, Isaacman’s thrill of living on the edge has driven him to pioneer and sponsor Inspiration4. He is currently 38 years old.
The entire spacecraft is divided into three parts as shown in the figure below. The first stage is the Falcon 9 rocket. The second stage consists of additional boosters. Finally, the Dragon Capsule is the section that carries the Inspiration4 crew.
The first stage will separate from the spacecraft sometime after the launch and return safely on a landing pad, courtesy of SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology. The second stage also separates after some time, and the Dragon Capsule is the portion left to orbit the earth for three days at a speed of 28,000 km/hr (17,500 mi/hr).
When it’s time to return to earth, the Dragon Capsule slows down and drops vertically. This stage is called reentry. When it comes close to the sea level, the parachutes open up, and the Dragon Capsule comes down to the ocean, and thus the stage is called splashdown.
The spacecraft is completely autonomous, so all the stages are programmed to occur automatically. The crew were nevertheless trained to take over controls in case of emergency.
The Inspiration4 crew took off on 15th September 2021 at 8:02 PM EDT from Kennedy Space Center. At T+00:02:45 (Two minutes and 45 seconds after the launch), the Falcon 9 rocket separated from the spacecraft. Then, at T+00:12:23, the second stage separated, and the crew was on its course to an altitude of 590 km.
The Dragon Capsule orbited the earth for the next three days, during which the crew performed several medical experiments, such as collecting swabs to evaluate microbiome reactions, performing ultrasounds and conducting cognitive tests. The crew returned safely back to earth after splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Florida on 18 September 2021 at 7:06 PM EDT.
The crew was subjected to 6 months of intensive theoretical and practical training. They studied a lot about systems engineering, controls of Dragon Capsule, and other related topics. To test the crew’s ability to withstand strong G-Forces, they went through a screening in human centrifuge – a machine that simulates high G-Forces experienced during the launch, reentry, and splashdown. They also went through the emergency protocols multiple times and familiarized themselves with the Dragon controls.
Their training also included climbing Mount Rainier to “get comfortable with uncomfortable situations”, a fighter jet flight to experience intense G-Forces outside of simulation, and hours of simulation training with qualified SpaceX instructors.
Inspiration From Inspiration4
As a graduate engineering student, I am thoroughly inspired by the advancement of technology in enabling non-professional astronauts to travel to space. Anything is possible in the scientific community with dedication, hard work, and perseverance like the SpaceX engineers and employees have demonstrated. The Inspiration4 crew and SpaceX have shown us that people like you and I can go to space.
Aside from the technical aspects, there is so much more inspiration to take from Inspiration4. I found Haley Arceneaux’s story to be the most inspiring. Her story is immensely impactful even if you remove the space journey from her life. Of course, she gave the biggest hope to children battling cancer. She shows childhood cancer is not the end of all. But, to the fortunate ones who didn’t have to fight cancer, she taught us how to stay strong and persistent through our difficult times. If she could survive cancer and then live an impactful life, surely I can overcome any struggle and make it through.
Dr. Sian Proctor travelled to space at the age of 51. People at her age start to think about retirement. I am currently in my 20s, and I always feel like I am at my peak now and need to get everything done before my 30s. But Dr. Proctor has shown it does not matter if you are in your 20s, 30s or 50s. Just keep doing your work and grasp every opportunity that comes in front of you.
We can also learn from the story of Chris Sembroski. It was his friend who passed this opportunity to him. Surely, he must be a good person that his friend decided to give him the seat. We should always look to build relationships with people around us, be generous to them, and help people without expecting anything in return. The universe has its way of giving back to you.