Quirks & Quarks·Analysis

Is space tourism about more than just billionaires and their toys?

Bob McDonald's blog: SpaceX's all civilian orbital flight paid for by a wealthy patron could prefigure a future of space travel for the rest of us.

Bob McDonald's blog: SpaceX's all-civilian orbital flight hints at space travel for the rest of us

The Inspiration 4 civilian crew aboard a Crew Dragon capsule and SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, September 15, 2021. (Thom Baur/Reuters)

One of the reasons the successful launch of four civilians into orbit in SpaceX's Inspiration 4 Mission is a milestone is that it marks an important moment in the handover of human space flight to the private sector. 

At first glance, the flight appears to be the latest billionaire sending himself into space. Jared Isaacman paid for the flight, writing a cheque to fellow billionaire Elon Musk, whose company provided the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. This follows the recent flights of Richard Branson on his Virgin Galactic vehicle and Jeff Bezos' on his Blue Origin rocket. 

Four private citizens aboard a SpaceX rocket orbit the Earth without the aid of trained astronauts

But this flight was different on several levels. First of all, those two flights just poked up above the Earth's atmosphere for a few minutes before returning to the ground, like a high flying amusement ride. The SpaceX flight is a three day orbital journey at an altitude of 575 km, which is higher than the International Space Station. 

More importantly, it is a demonstration of how a private company can safely send ordinary people into space at a fraction of the cost that the U.S. government paid to launch rigorously trained astronauts in its NASA-run space shuttles.

Traditionally, the U.S. government contracted many companies across the nation to build individual elements of their space shuttles and Apollo moon rockets, which were then assembled in Florida for flight. While this provides many jobs, it is a cumbersome and expensive way to build and fly rockets. 

SpaceX does everything within its own walls and has proven that it can build rockets, fly them and re-use them at much lower cost. And they can do it reliably. This launch happened exactly on time. Both the booster rocket and crew capsule have flown in space before, and the trip to orbit went off without a hitch. 

The Dragon capsule is fully autonomous, the equivalent of a self-driving car, so the crew doesn't actually fly it, although they do have to know how it works in case something goes wrong.

None of the crew had space experience and their training only lasted a matter of months compared to years of training for NASA astronauts. Of course, their three day mission is much simpler than spending half a year on the space station. But the goal of private human spaceflight is to facilitate safe and (relatively) cheap access to space, whether by wealthy tourists, industry workers, scientists or NASA astronauts.

Private spaceflight pioneers from left Sian Proctor, Chris Sembrowski, Jared Isaacman, and Hayley Arceneaux (John Kraus/Inspiration4/The Associated Press)

In some ways, the move from government to private spaceflight is similar to the birth of commercial airlines. During World War II, the U.S. government supported companies like Boeing to develop large aircraft such as four engined bombers, and then later as the cold war dawned fast jet bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons. 

That technological expertise was later applied to produce long range passenger aircraft, such as the Boeing 707. Initially jet travel was expensive, but as the industry grew, ticket prices came down, and routine air travel became accessible to a much larger portion of the population today.

Of course, one important reason that ordinary people can fly with confidence today is because the airline industry is heavily regulated to ensure that flying is the safest way to travel anywhere in the world. Whether the space industry will achieve airline levels of low cost, safe reliable travel beyond Earth remains to be seen. For the moment, civilian space flight seems to be the realm of  billionaires, but the Inspiration4 mission could be an important step in that direction.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.