Science

With Inspiration4, SpaceX and Elon Musk embark on the great circus of space tourism

And three launches! After Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, on July 11, the musical arrival show, the joyous statements and especially the news later reported that, that day, the SpaceShipTwo and its six passengers (including two pilots) touched the catastrophe by flying. outside the airspace. that was dedicated to him – a deviation of the trajectory that could have been fatal for the landing maneuvers; after Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, 9 days later (July 20), a less careful staging during the perfectly successful landing of the New Shepard capsule but with well displayed symbols: Stetson and Santiag for former Amazon CEO Texan at heart and Space jean shown.

After the two pioneering billionaires, the space tourism caravan stops in front of Elon Musk’s door. Tonight, between midnight and 6 am, the Dragon capsule should take off from the Kennedy Space Center (Florida) with four astronauts on board as part of the mission called “Inspiration4”.

A true astronaut status.

And as is often the case with the boss of Space X, things are different, sorry, disproportionate compared to everything that has been done before him. First, its “Fantastic Four” passengers, unlike those of Bezos and Branson, will be officially considered “real” astronauts. The New Dragon capsule that will allow them to travel for at least three days will evolve at an altitude of 575 kilometers, that is, where no human has been for a long time since even the International Space Station (ISS) sails on average around 450 kilometers above our heads. In fact, the last time professional astronauts got that high was in May 2009 for the Hubble telescope repair and thanks to the US space shuttle.

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So unlike his rivals, Elon Musk won’t be content with a little endorsement show for his mission return. For a few weeks, his communication teams have been orchestrating the event in mondovision, technicolor and on the big screen: since September 6, the little adventure is the subject of a documentary series produced by Netflix in partnership with Time Warner, entitled Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to space. It has five episodes. The first two, already broadcast, present the crew and the next two, their training. The last one, broadcast at the end of September, will be a summary of what the crew will have experienced during their epic return to Earth with images of the interior of the ship and the spectacular return (must land) in the ocean. And, since that was not enough, SpaceX has been proclaiming for a few days that, on the direct side, the launch will be broadcast tonight from the Netflix YouTube channel. In short, it is difficult to do better in terms of media resonance.

A litany of good feelings

Finally, with an attention to detail that is half philanthropic, half good feelings, Musk breaks the house when it comes to showcasing. In July, Branson played “corporate” by inviting Virgin Galactic employees, while Bezos took aim at the symbols by bringing in 82-year-old aviation pioneer Wally Funk and 18-year-old Dutchman Oliver Daemen became the oldest and youngest astronaut in history. , respectively. The SpaceX boss told the Inspiration4 team about Jared Isaacman, a billionaire like him, who at age 16 founded Shift4 Payments in his garage, a bank card transaction processing company, perfect for the Silicon Valley myth! Isaacman reportedly paid for the entire theft for an amount that has not been officially disclosed. By the time the contract was signed in February 2021, a figure of $ 35 million had circulated. For this price, the businessman buys the stripes of “commander” and has the right to choose his companions under radiant auspices: love, selflessness and generosity. In fact, the goal of Inspiration4 is to raise awareness and funds for St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

The first passenger will also be Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old medical assistant who recovered from bone cancer (a tumor in her left leg as a child) which makes her, according to official filings, “the first person with a prosthesis.” go to space … The other two acolytes have more classic profiles although they chose to have done a fundraiser for St. Jude Hospital (Christopher Sembroski) and have created an online sales site (Sian Proctor) anyway.

A 100% civilian crew to make history

But to get into the history of aeronautics, Elon Musk needed to find an additional goal: Inspiration4 will be the “first flight into space with a civilian crew.” That is correct. But in fact, between 2001 and 2009, seven wealthy tourists have already arrived in the sky, aboard the ISS for even longer stays (10 days), which put the price of their ticket from 20 to 40 million euros. ! The detail that makes the difference is that these pioneers of space tourism left and were surrounded by professional astronauts. There, with Inspiration4, civilians will be alone. At least to some extent, since the entire flight will be on “autopilot” and will be managed by the men of SpaceX.

A priori, even if the Boca Chica company assures that the crew members have been trained for this purpose, none of them will have to “take the controls” of the Dragon ship. In many respects, moreover, the training received for almost seven months and as the first episodes broadcast by Netflix show, was quite light: centrifuges, parabolic flights (in zero gravity), on-board simulations, medical examinations, etc. But again, SpaceX takes limited human risks. In addition to Haley Arceneaux, who may present herself as a rookie but whose age advocates perfect health, the other crew members are seasoned: Isaacman is a crazy pilot and also has a world jet record, Sian Proctor was a finalist in the selection. end of NASA. of astronauts and Chris Sembroski is a former Air Force veteran who served in Iraq.

Failure would be fatal

As for the interest of the mission, it seems limited: the Crew Dragon capsule will perform a series of rotations around the Earth that Yuri Gagarin first achieved in … 1961. Ultimately, the real problem is’ Inspiration4 would be that it went wrong. The men of SpaceX are not in control of everything, especially the dome that was installed on top of the Crew Dragon so that passengers could enjoy a 360 ° view, but that was not previously qualified and tested.

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If a problem arises, it will need to be managed from the ground. Whether they call themselves Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk and fly their clients 100 or 500 kilometers above sea level, New Space billionaires must not forget one thing: unlike other activities (such as launching a satellite), space tourism does not take place. by mistake. Failure would be fatal for them.

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