SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission just opened a new era of private spaceflight

Although Inspiration4 is over, there are many other missions that could follow its lead.
Inspiration4 sent four individuals on a three-day journey around Earth aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. This was the first ever crewed orbital mission without professional astronauts.

Saturday, September 18 was the final day of the landmark flight. There was an ocean splashdown off Florida's coast. We won't be waiting long to see more commercial trips to Earth orbit, like Inspiration4. These commercial trips will be coming in a lot over the next few weeks, possibly paving the way to a significant private presence on the last frontier.

"Congratulations @Inspiration4!" For more people to enjoy the wonders and beauty of space, low-Earth orbit is now easier. We look forward for the next one, where @NASA will be one of many commercial space customers. "Onward and upward!" NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted on Wednesday, September 15, just as Inspiration4 took off.

Video: Inspiration4's orbital tour of the SpaceX Crew Dragon

SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission saw four private astronauts smile upon returning to Earth on September 18, 2021, to complete their historic three-day spaceflight aboard a Dragon spacecraft. They are Hayley Arceneaux (left), Jared Isaacman (right), Sian Proctor (right) and Chris Sembroski (left). (Image credit: John Kraus/Inspiration4)

Orbital space tourism, phase 2

Before Inspiration4, orbital space tourism was a reality. It was booked, paid for, and commanded by Jared Isaacman, a tech billionaire. Eight people made eight trips to the International Space Station from 2001 to 2009. They traveled aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to and fro the orbiting outpost.

Space Adventures from Virginia arranged the flights. Each paying customer was placed on a Soyuz along with two Russian cosmonauts. Private citizens spent approximately a week on the space station before returning to Earth.

Since Inspiration4, there has been no space tourist to launch again into orbit. However, the time gap will be measured in weeks and not years.

Yulia Peresild and Klim Shipenko, director of the film "The Challenge", are set to launch on Oct. 5 aboard a Soyuz, which will be commanded from Anton Shkaplerov, cosmonaut. Shipenko and Peresild are expected to film scenes for "The Challenge" a Russian movie once they reach the orbiting laboratory.

Roscosmos, Russia's federal space agency, is a partner in the film project, as well as Russia's Channel One and Moscow's Yellow, Black and White. It is safe to assume that Shipenko & Peresild won't be paying for the trip.

Yusaku Maezawa is a billionaire businessman who will travel by Soyuz to orbiting labs this December. Space Adventures will arrange the trip. Maezawa will fly alongside Yozo Hirano (video producer) and Alexander Misurkin (cosmonaut).

In January 2022, a SpaceX Crew Dragon will transport three customers to the ISS. This mission was organized by Houston company Axiom Space. Axiom has hired Michael Lpez-Alegra, a former NASA astronaut, to lead the mission, known as Ax-1.

Axiom signed a deal for SpaceX to launch three more such flights to the orbiting laboratory. These are expected to be launched in the next two-years. Two of the future missions will feature crew members selected via reality TV shows, "Space Hero" and "Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?" for the other.

This is just a small list. Space Adventures, for instance, announced plans last year to fly four customers on Crew Dragons to Earth orbit. This mission, which is a lot like Inspiration4, is expected to take place in late 2021 or early twenty22. Two seats are being offered by the Virginia company on Soyuz to orbit in 2023, and one of them will be able to do a spacewalk, which is the first private citizen-led spacewalk.

If all goes according to plan, space tourism will soon expand beyond Earth orbit. Maezawa booked a round the moon trip on Starship SpaceX's deep-space transport system. This is still in development. The launch of the dearMoon flight is planned for 2023.

Related: Photos of the first space tourists

Suborbital, too

Suborbital space tourism is also on the rise. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, two of the major players in this space tourism market, have both manned spaceflights and are now preparing to start regular commercial flights in the next few months.

Suborbital space requires deep pockets. A seat on Virgin Galactic's six-passenger VSS Unity plane spaceplan currently costs $450,000. Blue Origin has yet to reveal its ticket prices but it is expected that they will be within the same neighborhood as, or even higher than, currently being sold by Virgin Galactic.

Even more costly is the trip to orbit. Space Adventures paid $20 million to $35 million to take passengers to the ISS. Isaacman and SpaceX have not disclosed the amount that billionaire paid for Inspiration4, although it could be close to $200 million. NASA pays approximately $55 million per Crew Dragon seat on ISS missions.

These prices will likely fall as more private missions such as Inspiration4 are launched, but it is hard to see a sudden drop in their costs anytime soon. For a while, orbital space tourism will be the preserve of the wealthy, well-connected, and/or extremely lucky or charismatic (depending how you choose to describe reality TV winners).

This doesn't mean that the boom will not be felt by the masses. However, a steady and significant increase in private space activity could have ripple effects on the rest of the population. Axiom, for example, plans to launch a commercial space station on Earth orbit within the next few years. One pharmaceutical company might discover a new cancer drug in microgravity on the station. Redwire's subsidiary Made In Space may use the outpost for the perfect manufacturing of ZBLAN, an optical fiber that will increase connectivity on Earth.

Specific predictions are a fool's errand. Space exploration and development fans should be excited by increased commercial activity in space's final frontier, provided that it proceeds responsibly. Because advances tend to grow on top of each other, there is no way to know. SpaceX may have more money to spend on Starship than it can make in space-tourism money. Starship could be the vehicle that gets humanity to Mars.

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