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Armstrong: SpaceX launches inspirational flight to the future

By John Armstrong - | Sep 22, 2021

John Armstrong

You might be forgiven for being unaware, but just last week SpaceX launched Inspiration4, the first orbital space mission crewed entirely by civilians. With little fanfare, four commercial astronauts spent three days in orbit and returned safely to Earth.

I find the word “civilian” a little misleading, because even though NASA astronauts are extremely well qualified, it’s not like they are a military branch of the government. But this is the first crew that consists entirely of people not specifically trained to be astronauts.

Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman led the flight. Another seat went to pilot and geologist Sian Proctor, and two were given to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. One of those went to a St. Jude physician assistant, Hayley Arceneaux, and Air Force veteran Christopher Sembroski won the other in a raffle. While none of these people went through the years of rigorous preparation expected from NASA astronauts, they did receive specialized training prior to the mission.

Notably absent from the flight was SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Compared to the exploits earlier this year from Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin/Amazon), this puts SpaceX’s effort in an entirely different category. With the relative lack of media coverage and Musk stepping out of the limelight, this mission felt more incremental. A huge accomplishment to be sure, but in the grand scheme of things, just one step on a much larger journey.

Musk certainly hasn’t hidden his interplanetary ambitions. He’s made it clear that, in his view, humans need to expand beyond Earth if we have any hope of being more than another flash in our planet’s biological pan. Sending people to colonize Mars is the goal, so putting regular people in orbit is but one small step. Ultimately, I suspect Musk envisions a human future much like the fictional future in TV series “The Expanse,” with inhabitants on Earth, Mars, the asteroid belt, and the moons of Jupiter. A grand vision indeed.

On the other hand, both the Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights could only be called space flight in the most technical sense. These “astronauts” experienced just a few minutes of weightlessness and, in the case of Virgin Galactic, may not have reached an altitude that qualified as outer space.

The SpaceX crew, on the other hand, spent three days in orbit around Earth, performing experiments and learning what it is like to actually live, however briefly, in space.

The technological achievements also set SpaceX apart. The Virgin Galactic launch technology will never get humans past suborbital flight. While Blue Origin’s capsule could in principle be used for longer flights, the rocket technology certainly can’t. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s launch technology has already sent Musk’s old Tesla Roadster out past the orbit of Mars.

The event is laudable for its humanitarian goals as well. The mission expects to raise over $200 million dollars for childhood cancer research. I suspect the tourism inspired by Branson and Bezos will also raise quite a bit of money, but for whom or what cause it is not entirely clear.

All this is to say that I’m excited about Inspiration4 to the same level I was left underwhelmed by the earlier missions. The SpaceX flight seems like a step to somewhere, compared to the expensive joyrides of the previous billionaires.

I don’t doubt that Musk will play a role in one of the future missions, but I suspect he’s saving it for when he, along with the other first permanent residents, sets foot on Mars.

Me? The Red Planet is a little dusty for my taste, and I’m not sure why, once free of Earth’s gravity, you’d willingly subject yourself to the only somewhat weaker pull of Mars. Nope, I’ve got my eye on a little rock in the inner asteroid belt. The view is better and you get to travel back to Earth or the outer moons with equal ease.

Now that sounds like space tourism to me.

Dr. John Armstrong is a Weber State University professor of physics. Twitter: @ByJCArmstrong

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