Sep 14, 2021

Axios Space

Hello from sunny Florida, and thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,192 words, the newsletter is about a 4½-minute read.

  • The fourth episode of "How it Happened: The Next Astronauts" is available now. We'll have one more episode for you after Inspiration4 launches and the crew returns home. Listen and subscribe here.
  • I'm also going to take part in a Reddit AMA about Inspiration4 and all things space on Wednesday.

Please send your tips, questions and Cape Canaveral restaurant recommendations to miriam.kramer@axios.com, or if you received this as an email, just hit reply.

1 big thing: Wrestling with the risks of private spaceflight

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The all-civilian Inspiration4 crew, launching to orbit this week, will force the space industry to contend with just how much risk ordinary people are willing to take on in order to build humanity's future in space.

Why it matters: The private space industry's goal of building an economy in space hinges on sending more people to orbit in the near future. But spaceflight is still an incredibly risky endeavor and it will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.

  • Professional astronauts are compensated for risking their lives to live and work in space, but private citizens — and their families — have to be willing to take risks without compensation.

The big picture: Inspiration4 and the missions that follow it present risks that companies like SpaceX have to convince ordinary people to take if they want to eventually build a city on Mars.

  • "I'll be very blunt. People are going to die. And if you don't think that can happen, then you don't understand the nature of the business," former NASA engineer Wayne Hale told Axios.

The intrigue: Private individuals can't count on government regulations to keep them safe when they fly to space with private companies, at least not yet.

  • These missions aren't regulated for the safety of the passengers or the crew by the FAA.
  • Congress placed a moratorium on new crew safety regulations in 2004 in order to allow the private spaceflight industry to get off the ground and shore up a customer base.
  • That means the FAA is allowed to regulate a private, crewed launch for the safety of people on the ground but not the "spaceflight participants" flying to orbit or suborbital flights in the case of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Between the lines: When people go to space it affects the families they leave behind on the ground.

  • "You need to be prepared to sit down and have some hard discussions with the significant others in your life and explain to them why, if things don't turn out well, it was still worth the risk," Hale said.
  • With Inspiration4, the families of the civilians flying to orbit — Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux and Chris Sembroski — haven't had years to prepare for the emotional toll this mission could take. Instead, they've only had a handful of months to get ready.
  • "I need him back safe and sound," Erin Duncan-Sembroski, Chris' wife, told me. "And so I think I'll really start celebrating when he's back on the ground."
2. How to watch the Inspiration4 launch

The Inspiration4 capsule awaiting launch. Photo: Inspiration4/SpaceX

After about six months of training and preparation, the Inspiration4 crew is set to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Wednesday evening.

Why it matters: This first all-civilian flight to orbit will act as a proof of concept for SpaceX and the broader private spaceflight industry, which wants to send many more people to space in the coming years and decades.

What to watch: The launch will be aired live via SpaceX on Wednesday with liftoff expected at 8:02pm ET.

  • The four crew members will spend three days in orbit, flying higher than the International Space Station and giving the cupola — a brand new, huge bubble window from SpaceX — a test drive.
  • They'll fly to space in a SpaceX Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket.

Background: Isaacman is the brainchild of this mission and the commander of the flight.

  • He originally contacted SpaceX in 2020 to see if he could invest in the company, but he'd just missed a funding round and then offhandedly made a joke about wanting to be a customer — as in fly to space — one day.
  • That day is coming sooner than he expected. The person he was speaking with at SpaceX got him in touch with the human spaceflight program, and they came up with the idea for Inspiration4.
  • Proctor, the mission's pilot, was picked via a reality TV-style competition for entrepreneurs. Sembroski was chosen via a raffle, and Arceneaux got her seat through her employer, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which is also benefiting from a fundraiser associated with the mission.

What's next: After their three days in orbit, the crew will splash down somewhere off the Florida coast within their Dragon capsule.

3. What the crew will do in space

Clockwise from left: Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux and Chris Sembroski. Photo: Inspiration4/John Kraus

When the crew lives in space for three days, they'll do more than just sightseeing.

  • The Inspiration4 crew members also hope to perform experiments and fly a variety of sentimental items with them in space.

The big picture: This mission is like none that have flown before, but the crew is still planning to draw on the experiences of previous professional crews to help advance space science and attract the public to their cause.

Details: The crew is planning to perform a number of medical experiments while in space.

  • The four crew members will be tested for balance and perception before flying and then after they land to compare the two tests, something that professional astronauts have done for years.
  • While the crew is in space, scientists will gather data about their "movement, sleep, heart rate and rhythm, blood oxygen saturation, cabin noise and light intensity" as well as electrocardiogram activity to get a full picture of what it's like to be in space, according to a release from Inspiration4 and the Translational Research Institute for Space Health.
  • After the crew comes back from orbit, the researchers are also planning to collect data on them over time to see how space may have changed the expression of certain genes and markers.

Zoom out: These types of medical experiments are particularly important because fewer than 600 people have flown to space before.

  • That small number means scientists haven't been able to gather as much data as they want about how spaceflight affects various parts of the body.
  • As SpaceX and others try to push deeper into the solar system — to Mars and elsewhere — understanding how spaceflight can change an astronaut's body will be exceedingly important.

1 fun thing: The four crewmembers are also flying sentimental objects to orbit as well as various items that will be auctioned off to benefit St. Jude later.

  • One of those items is a non-fungible token of a performance of the song "Time in Disguise" by Kings of Leon that Arceneaux will play while in space.
4. Out of this world reading list

Russia's Nauka multipurpose laboratory module on the ISS. Photo: NASA

VP wants more diversity in the National Space Council’s industry advisory group (Sandra Erwin, SpaceNews)

Astronauts complete spacewalk to prepare for ISS power boost (Ashley Strickland, CNN)

One lab's quest to build space-time out of quantum particles (Adam Becker, Quanta Magazine)

NASA picks SpaceX's Falcon Heavy to launch GOES-U weather satellite (Mike Wall, Space.com)

Winklevoss twins back Payload, a new outlet covering business of space (Sara Fischer, Axios)

5. Weekly dose of awe: Globs of stars

Photo: ESA/Hubble and NASA, A. Sarajedini

A star cluster 20,000 light-years from Earth glows in this photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

  • This collection of stars — named NGC 6717 — is known as a "globular cluster," a somewhat spherical grouping of stars bound together by gravity.
  • "The centre of the image also contains some interlopers from closer to home," the European Space Agency wrote. "Bright foreground stars close to Earth are surrounded by criss-cross diffraction spikes formed by starlight interacting with the structures supporting Hubble’s secondary mirror."

Big thanks to Alison Snyder and Sheryl Miller for editing this week's edition. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 🚀