For the third time this summer, a space billionaire is launching his own rocket with space tourists. This time it’s Elon Musk, founder and leader of the space company SpaceX. On Thursday, SpaceX will launch a Falcon 9 rocket topped by a Crew Dragon 2 capsule from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There are four space tourists in the capsule.
The capsule will spend three days in orbit at an altitude of 575 kilometers, higher than the International Space Station. That makes the flight much more of a real space journey than the mere minute-long “suborbital jumps” of billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos. They went up and down in July to an altitude of 86 and 107 kilometers respectively, just enough to count as ‘space’, and resulted in a few minutes of weightlessness.
Branson and Bezos were criticized for their launches this summer: While record wildfires underlined the urgency of climate change, the billionaires squandered millions on fuel-guzzling pleasure flights. Bezos further deepened the PR crisis by thanking all Amazon employees and customers afterwards, “because you paid for all this.”
Nurse and pilot
For now, SpaceX seems to be dodging PR cliffs with the Inspiration4 mission. Musk himself is not going, and except for Jared Isaacman, owner of the internet payment company Shift4 and an experienced pilot, the passengers are not particularly wealthy. Isaacman paid an estimated $200 million for the trip. Two of his traveling companions, Chris Sembroski and Sian Proctor, are lucky donors to a raffle collection for St Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. The fourth passenger is Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old nurse who works at St. Jude’s and went through cancer as a child. The preparation for the mission has been made into a Netflix series, and the launch itself will be broadcast live on Netflix on Thursday.
For the Crew Dragon 2’s orbit flight, the rocket must accelerate the capsule to a speed of about 28 thousand kilometers per hour. This causes extreme aerodynamic loads on the rocket during takeoff. On the way back, the capsule has to lose all that speed, which requires a heat shield that withstands temperatures of thousands of degrees. The capsule then lands on a parachute in the sea.
SpaceX already performed its first manned flight in 2020. The Crew Dragon then brought astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the ISS, on behalf of NASA.
This time the ISS will not be called in, which makes the flight a lot easier from an organizational point of view. For example, the coupling installation on the nose of the Crew Dragon has been replaced by a large glass dome, which promises the four passengers a wide view once they are in space.
If this third fully commercially operated flight succeeds, 2021 will go down in history as the year in which space tourism finally took off. Space tourism has a long history, but above all of promises. It started in 2001 when American Dennis Tito became the first paying space tourist to travel to the ISS aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, and stayed there for eight days, much to the chagrin of other ISS partners like NASA. Six tourists were supposed to follow him, but this ISS route ended in 2009.
As early as 2005, Branson boarded a predecessor to the spaceplane SpaceShipTwo, which functions very differently from Musk’s ‘classic’ rocket. That plane is released from below a futuristic-looking mothership height, then turns on its rocket engine, and propels itself to the edge of space. Once at the top, it changes wing position, so that it is slowed down as much as possible when it falls back. Before landing, the wings fold back, after which the rocket plane lands on a runway like a glider.
This innovative approach was already successful in 2004: predecessor SpaceShipOne made two flights to space within two weeks. But converting an experimental rocket into something that can safely transport tourists turned out to be a long-term task. Test pilot Michael Alsbury was killed in a crash in 2014.
Compared to this SpaceShipTwo, the New Shepard developed by Bezos’ space company Blue Origin is a bit more traditional: rocket motors propel the 18 meter high cylinder fully automatically to the edge of space. The capsule at the top has large windows for a better view. After the climax, the capsule is fired to land with the help of parachutes. The rocket itself lands upright on land with the help of rocket engines, something that only the Falcon 9 rocket stage from SpaceX can do.
Meanwhile, NASA has plans to commercialize the ISS, and SpaceX has sold three tickets to the ISS – return and stay – at 55 million dollars each. Boeing, which is working on a manned capsule, also wants to sell tickets to the ISS. Traveling further is also possible. The Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will make a flight around the moon at the earliest in 2023 aboard SpaceX’s gigantic Starship rocket, which is still under development. Maezawa has announced that it will bring eight artists to inspire them.
Aspiring space tourists with a smaller (but still hefty) budget will have to limit themselves to sub-orbital flights like those of Branson and Bezos. Virgin Galactic now sells tickets for suborbital flights for $450,000, and Blue Origin tickets will cost between $200 and $300,000.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of September 15, 2021