SpaceX, the company started by Elon Musk, is scheduled to launch around October, the first commercial astronaut mission to Earth orbit.
If this could be the beginning of a new era in spaceflight after the world famous Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, we will have to wait and see.
For a non astronaut to fly into space, you will have to be a millionaire or a very powerful and extremely well connected individual.
However, the “Inspiration4” will have three seats out of four reserved for the general public.
The commander will be businessman and pilot, Jared Isaacman, who is paying for the Inspiration4 flight. He chartered the Crew Dragon flight and will go through training to operate the spacecraft and serve as its commander
The money raised by SpaceX will be partly donated to St.Jude Children’s Research hospital in Memphis. This hospital treats children free of charge and develops cures for childhood cancers and other diseases.
One seat has already been reserved for a member of St.Jude staff, a healthcare worker.The third seat, will be decided by a raffle amongst those who donate to St. Jude hospital following competition rules listed on the Inspiration4 website.
The fourth seat, will go to the winner of an online competition for clients of Shift4Shop e-commerce, a platform offered by Isaacman’s company Shift4 Payments.
The four crew members will then begin commercial astronaut training conducted by SpaceX.
If sending SpaceX to Earth orbit with an all civilian crew with no affiliation with a space agency is now a possibility, it is thanks to those that paved the way before.
Particularly, the renowned NASA Space Shuttle programme that from 1981 to 2011 sent 135 missions to space.
During the duration of this programme 5 Space Shuttle orbiter vehicles were built;
Columbia(1981-2003), Challenger(1983-1986), Discovery(1984-2011), Atlantis(1985-2011) and Endeavour (1992-2011).
The space shuttle, a reusable rocket-launched spacecraft designed to go into orbit around Earth , was an incredible engineering achievement, an extraordinary wonder of science and human skill that has earned its place in the history of space.
It launched like a rocket from Florida’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, and returned to Earth like an airplane.
The first space shuttle mission, the Columbia, launched in 1981and the last shuttle to fly was Atlantis in July 2011.
The space shuttle purpose was scientific but it also exploited space as NASA turned the programme into a commercial enterprise.
During a space shuttle mission, astronauts dedicated most of the time to scientific experiments and technological maintenance. The space shuttle’s best contribution was building the International Space Station.
The completion took 13 years and dozens of shuttle missions and a lot of hard work. All of the shuttles were specially equipped for such functions, with a large cargo bay and a robotic manipulator arm.
However, the Space Shuttle did suffer two major fatal accidents in little over 100 flights that cost the lives of 14 talented individuals.
The Challenger space disaster in 1986, exploded 73 seconds after liftoff killing all 7 crew members. After the catastrophe, space shuttle flight operations were suspended for two years.
Then, in 1988 the shuttle program resumed flights and missions were successful until disaster struck again in 2003 .
The Columbia disintegrated when it reentered the atmosphere and just minutes before it was supposed to be landing at the Kennedy Space Center.Evidence proved that the crew had acted correctly and was not responsible for the disintegration of the orbiter.
Flying on the space shuttle was considered dangerous and unreliable, and the programme came to an end in 2011.
Nine years later, in May 2020, a crewed vehicle flew for the first time from the U.S. since the retirement of the shuttle .
The Crew Dragon spacecraft carried Nasa astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit. This was all part of Nasa’s plan to transfer space station flights to private companies.
As opposed to the Space Shuttle, the Crew Dragon is a 21st Century spaceship. The touchscreens on the inside are very different from the analogue buttons and dials in the cockpits of the space shuttle.
Launching commercial vehicles to the International space station , and maybe beyond, is just another giant step in the human conquest of space.
Many lessons are still to be learned but those who came before and risked their lives, are to be thanked for the success of these future civilian missions.