SpaceX built a true commercial space line for fun, profit and a good cause
The purpose of the Commercial Crew Program, started under President Barack Obama, was to provide a means to get astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) cheaper than had been the case with the space shuttle system.
So far, the program has succeeded with that goal brilliantly with the advent of the SpaceX Crew Dragon. The commercial spacecraft has already conducted two flights to the ISS with astronauts on board. The first, Commercial Crew Demo-2, took two astronauts to the space station in May 2020. The second, Crew-1, began regular crew rotations to the ISS in November 2020. SpaceX plans more contracted NASA flights to the space station in 2021.
The other, almost unstated goal of the Commercial Crew Program was to enable a truly commercial space transportation industry, one in which private customers would travel to and from low Earth orbit. The goal has started to be met thanks to a number of flights that have been recently announced.
Axiom Space, a company developing a private space station, recently announced a commercial space flight to the ISS. “The proposed historic Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1) will consist of: former NASA astronaut and Axiom vice president Michael López-Alegría as commander; American entrepreneur and non-profit activist investor Larry Connor as pilot; Canadian investor and philanthropist Mark Pathy; and impact investor and philanthropist Eytan Stibbe of Israel.”
AX-1 will not be the first space tourist jaunt to the ISS. The Russians used to take private space travelers to the space station, including Texas computer game creator Richard Garriott and Iranian-American businesswoman Anousheh Ansari. The modern private space travelers will spend eight days on the ISS, performing experiments no earlier than January 2022.
Axiom, by the way, plans to take actor Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman on a trip to the ISS to shoot a movie at a date to be determined.
The most recently announced private spaceflight is the creation of a high-tech entrepreneur named Jared Isaacman. Isaacman has bought a two-to-four-day flight on a Crew Dragon for himself and three other lucky people. He proposes to use his spaceflight, called Inspiration4, to raise money for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Most everyone has seen the public service commercials for St. Jude’s. They feature utterly adorable children who are battling one of the most common potentially fatal diseases in existence. The message: open your checkbook and give generously so that St. Jude’s will find a way to cure all childhood cancers so that children need not die of the disease before they have even started living.
Isaacman is going to contribute $100 million to St. Jude’s off the top. He will give one seat on his spaceflight to a health care worker from St. Jude’s. Another seat will go to the winner of a business competition in collaboration with Isaacman’s company, Shift4 Payments.
However, the fourth seat will be raffled off to anyone who contributes money to St. Jude’s at a website created for that purpose. One can contribute any amount from $10 to $100,000 for a chance of an adventure of a lifetime. The more one contributes the more chances one has to win. Various levels of contribution include everything from t-shirts to an aerobatic flight on a Mig-29. Isaacman hopes to raise another $100 million for his spaceflight.
Ever since the Apollo program, politicians, journalists and others have been asking, “why should we spend all that money for space travel while we have so many problems to deal with on Earth?” On July 16, 1969, the day three men departed Earth to land on the Moon, a group protested the launch upon that very question.
Isaacman and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk have come up with a brilliant answer to that question. Why not help address all those problems on Earth by traveling in space? While economists have been arguing that humankind’s drive to explore space does have earthly benefits, the Inspiration4 flight makes a direct connection of one to the other.
The fact that the winner of the fourth seat on the Inspiration4 flight will be an ordinary person, and not someone well-heeled and adventurous enough to afford the $55 million ticket prize for a seat on an AX-1 flight will be the piece de resistance. Now, thanks to the rise of commercial spaceflight, anyone with a little luck will be able to fly into space, all to serve a good cause.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.