Dusseldorf On Sunday morning, the rocket and space capsule rolled onto launch site 39A in Cape Canaveral. A little later they were erected, 78 meters high, and anchored. The static fire test then took place on Monday morning: all nine Merlin engines were successfully ignited for a few seconds. The weather played along too.
On Wednesday evening, history will be made in Florida: For the first time, a “completely civilian space flight with humans” is going to heaven, as the space company SpaceX put it on Twitter.
Four tourists will be sitting in the space capsule “Dragon”. Otherwise nobody is on board – nobody with space experience or an astronaut training. For three days, the quartet will be completely dependent on themselves and the SpaceX technology. “This is something special,” says Ulrich Walter, professor of space technology at the Technical University of Munich.
In comparison, the tourist flights from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galatic a few weeks ago seem like preliminary skirmishes. Back then, paying customers only flew into suborbital space and spent a few minutes in weightlessness.
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SpaceX, on the other hand, undertakes a mission into space. The four occupants are said to be 570 kilometers higher than the International Space Station ISS and race around the earth at more than 27,000 kilometers per hour. Both SpaceX’s rocket and capsule have previously been used on other flights.
Much is at stake for SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk. So far, the company has only earned money from contracts with the NASA space agency, the military and satellite companies. It is also building a satellite constellation with Starlink to offer global broadband internet. Tourism is a new line of business. The flight into space is supposed to prove that anyone can be an astronaut.
On board is Jared Isaacman, founder and head of the e-commerce company Shift4 Payments. The 38-year-old billionaire finances the flight. Sian Proctor is also there. The 51-year-old is a geology professor and won an online competition from Shift4 Payments. She was once a candidate for astronauts at NASA.
Isaacman donated the remaining two places to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, a leading hospital in the fight against leukemia and other childhood cancers. Therefore, 29-year-old Hayley Arceneaux is there, who survived bone cancer and works as a doctor’s assistant at St. Jude Hospital.
The last place was raffled. Ticket sales and donations raised an impressive $ 100 million. There were 72,000 applicants in total. The winning ticket was drawn by 42-year-old Chris Sembroski, a data scientist with the defense company Lockheed Martin.
Mission costs $ 60 to $ 70 million
How much Isaacman pays for the flight is not known. It is very likely that SpaceX will pay less attention to the profit than to the advertising effect on the first tourist flight. According to calculations by space experts, the SpaceX mission will cost a total of 60 to 70 million dollars. A sum that Isaacman can easily afford with an estimated fortune of $ 2.4 billion.
SpaceX will also grant a certain risk discount. For the first time, tourists are unaccompanied in space. The capsule is controlled remotely by SpaceX and should be able to be brought back to earth at any time with its own motors.
However, one problem remains: three out of four astronauts get space sickness. After just a few minutes in weightlessness, nausea can occur, which lasts for 24 to 36 hours and can also cause back pain or digestive disorders in the long term.
This is a completely new experience for each of the participants. Everyone has to decide whether, when and how many drugs to take against it. “It takes a bit of experience to deal with it,” says space professor Walter, who was an astronaut himself in the 1990s.
The four were prepared for this as well as possible in a five-month training session. They also practiced how to behave in emergency situations and other incidents. In interviews, Isaacman was confident that he was adequately armed. However: “In space travel, as in other areas, something can always go wrong,” says Walter.
The astronauts cannot dock with the ISS. The docking station required for this was replaced by a viewing platform on the “Dragon” capsule. The glass dome allows a fantastic view. “You can’t feel any closer to space,” said Musk.
If the flight goes smoothly, SpaceX opens a new chapter: space tourism. The space company founded by Elon Musk in 2002 reduced the costs of rocket launches and other technology significantly through innovative ideas.
This has been achieved through new and better methods such as rocket recycling. For example, the Falcon 9 that transports the tourists is already on its third mission. The rocket had previously launched two GPS satellites into space. After she has dropped the capsule “Inspiration 4” – which was also in space in 2020 – she is supposed to land on the floating SpaceX platform “Just Read The Instructions”.
SpaceX’s innovative strength pays off. The Los Angeles-based company carried out 24 of the total of 41 US rocket launches this year; in 2020 it was 25 of 39. While venture capitalists rated the company at around ten billion dollars in 2015, it was a few months ago at 74 billion dollars rated. For comparison: Virgin Galactic from the English entrepreneur Richard Branson comes to a good six billion dollars.
There is also another difference that is important for tourists: according to the definition of the astronauts’ association “Association of Space Explorers”, one must have circled the earth at least once to be allowed to call oneself an astronaut. This means that the four SpaceX tourists can count themselves among this select group after their flight – unlike the space tourists at Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin.
More: How Europe is wasting its future in space