Elon Musk and SpaceX announced on Monday that they will send the first-ever fully commercial, non-government space flight into orbit by the end of the year, using the company’s four-seat Crew Dragon capsule for the journey.
Billionaire and jet pilot Jared Isaacman, 37, will finance and lead the all-civilian voyage, which he will use to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. He plans to round out the fantastic foursome with a female health-care worker from St. Jude, an entrepreneur and the winner of a fundraising contest for the hospital.
“St. Jude’s mission is not about rockets or space exploration, it’s about treating some of the most heart-wrenching conditions that any parent could imagine,” Isaacman said on Monday during a teleconference chat with Musk. “And if we’re going to continue making advances up there in space, then we have an obligation to do the same down here on Earth.”
Musk says the journey is a “stepping stone” toward making space accessible to the general public, and that billionaire tourists are needed to help drive down costs for future voyages.
“Things necessarily start off real expensive, because it’s new technology at low volume, low production rates,” he said. “And so we actually need people who are willing and able to pay the high prices initially, in order to make it affordable, long term, for everyone.”
The mission has been dubbed “Inspiration4,” and aspiring travellers have until March 1 to try to win a seat onboard. One person who donates to St. Jude will win a spot, and another “inspirational entrepreneur” will be selected through an independently judged competition. The entrepreneur must also use Isaacman’s credit card processing company, Shift4 Payments, to be eligible.
The health-care worker, the donor and the entrepreneur are meant to represent hope, generosity and prosperity, according to the Inspiration4 site. Isaacman will represent “leadership,” the site says.
Only legal U.S. residents will be considered for the journey — sorry, aspiring Canadian space travellers — and everyone must be medically fit for space flight.
“If you can go on a roller-coaster ride, like an intense roller-coaster ride, you should be fine for flying on a Dragon,” Musk said.
The four-person crew will ride inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, and they’ll be carried into space by a Falcon 9 rocket. The mission is expected to take off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the fourth quarter of 2021, though no exact date has been set.
The mission will last two to four days, and the capsule will whip around the Earth once every 90 minutes, Musk says. The capsule will then come back down to Earth for a soft water landing off the coast of Florida.
Isaacman hopes to raise more than US$200 million for the hospital, and he’s kick-starting that effort by donating the first $100 million out of his own pocket.
“I truly want us to live in a world 50 or 100 years from now where people are jumping in their rockets like the Jetsons and there are families bouncing around on the moon with their kid in a spacesuit,” he told The Associated Press.
“I also think if we are going to live in that world, we better conquer childhood cancer along the way.”
Isaacman has already paid for a Super Bowl ad to tout the mission later this month.
The journey is one of several tourism ventures that Musk has on the go at SpaceX. Three businessmen will pay $55 million each to visit the International Space Station (ISS) via a Dragon capsule next January, and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is scheduled to fly to the moon on board SpaceX’s BFR rocket in 2023.
Isaacman did not disclose the cost of the flight, but he did say that the expected donation to St. Jude “vastly exceeds the cost of the mission.”
Isaacman says he will take his crew on a mountain expedition sometime this year as a team-building exercise before the flight.
“We’re all going to get to know each other … really well before launch,” he told the AP.
The Dragon capsule is fully automated, so Isaacman and his crew should be able to sit back and enjoy the flight; the crew can take control in the case of an emergency, and Isaacman does have some piloting experience to draw upon.
The Pennsylvania native grew up a “space geek” and founded Shift4 Payments in his parents’ basement after dropping out of school at 16 and getting a GED certificate on his own.
Isaacman later scratched his itch for adventure by learning to fly jets. He set a speed record for flying around the world in 2009, in a stunt that raised money for the Make-A-Wish program. He later set up Draken International, the world’s largest private fleet of fighter jets.
The billionaire says he’s well-aware of the pressure that comes with being the first all-civilian team.
“If something does go wrong, it will set back every other person’s ambition to go and become a commercial astronaut,” he said.
SpaceX has recorded two successful Crew Dragon missions to date. The first mission sent two astronauts to the ISS aboard the Crew Dragon capsule in May, then brought them home safely in August. A second journey ferried a full crew of four astronauts up to the ISS last November.
The company has also sent its unmanned Dragon capsule up to the ISS on several occasions.
Musk says he’s excited to start sending tourists into space in 2021.
“Let’s have fun and, like, inspire the public and get people fired up about the future,” he said.
—With files from The Associated Press