SpaceX will soon launch an all-civilian crew for its Inspiration4 mission. Is the adventure worth the risk?
Aside from the launch, one of the most arresting aspects of witnessing humans being hurled into orbit is the realization that the astronauts boarding the transfer van bound for the launch pad are actually going to get on top of that fully fueled rocket.
Astronauts must accept a certain amount of risk. That is why the early astronauts were selected from the ranks of the nation’s test pilots. Part of the Mercury astronauts’ instant celebrity was the widely-held belief they would be blown to smithereens on national television.
As the commercial space sector advances, space travel nevertheless remains unforgiving. Which is why I have misgivings about SpaceX’s plan to send an all-civilian crew into orbit as early as this fall aboard its flight-tested Crew Dragon spacecraft. True, the vehicle has carried one crew back and forth from the International Space Station and launched a second crew last November.
In the early days of human spaceflight, a spacecraft had to be “man-rated” before NASA would consider launching an astronaut. Is the Crew Dragon “civilian-rated”? Perhaps, but the crew members of the Inspiration4 mission are taking a hell of a risk for an orbital joy ride paid for by billionaire Jared Isaacman.
This week’s announcement that Isaacman has selected three crew mates to accompany him on a three-day spaceflight was variously described by crew members as “cool” and an “amazing” opportunity. If all goes well, it will be all that and more.
The civilian crew will reportedly begin training shortly on a centrifuge that will simulate the gravitational forces experienced during launch and reentry. With a launch scheduled for this fall, it’s unrealistic to think civilians can be properly prepared for the stresses of space flight and the disorientation of weightlessness in such a short period of time.
Even experienced test pilots and veteran astronauts have been known to upchuck in zero-G.
Therefore, don’t forget the barf bags!
Issacman, the deep-pocketed philanthropist paying for the flight, is described as an “accomplished pilot and adventurer.” As the flight’s commander, he also will be responsible for the lives of college professor Sian Proctor, data engineer Christopher Sembroski and Hayley Arceneaux, a bone cancer survivor. At 29, Arceneaux would also become the youngest American to fly in space.
Hence, the flight of Inspiration4 is something more than a feel-good adventure story. Faced with an emergency, the harsh reality is that an all-civilian crew may not respond in the manner of, say, the crew of Apollo 13. That crew survived an oxygen tank explosion on the way to the moon by applying years of test pilot training to find a way to get back home.
In an emergency, we can only hope SpaceX ground controllers can bring the civilian crew home. That would require months of training, with little or no room for error.
Unquestionably the chance of a lifetime for the crew, flight controllers must leave nothing to chance. It’s unclear for now whether sending all-civilian crew into orbit is worth that risk.
We wish the crew of Inspiration4 the best of luck. They’ll need all they can get, and will have to make much of it on their own in the coming months of training.
As he headed for the launch pad on the maiden flight of the space shuttle, considered among of the riskiest missions in the history of human spaceflight, pilot Robert Crippen accepted the well wishes of the send-off crowd. Someone yelled good luck.
Replied Crippen: “Luck has nothing to do with it.”
This article was originally published on EE Times.
George Leopold, the former executive editor of EE Times and the author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom, also writes the EE Times Critical Path and By the Numbers blogs. Besides EE Times, Leopold’s work has appeared in The New York Times, New Scientist, and other publications. He resides in Reston, Va.