How did the first space mission of non-professional astronauts go

How did the first space mission of non-professional astronauts go

Inspiration4 landed off Florida. Full success for a mission that has scored many firsts in space history

Hayley Arceneaux leaves the Resilience capsule (screenshot from SpaceX live) After three days in orbit, the Inspiration4 crew has returned to Earth. This morning, Sunday 19 September, in Italy eight minutes after one, SpaceX's Resilience capsule plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Florida. The splashdown concluded the first orbital mission in history carried out by non-professional astronauts.

The recovery, like the entire mission, was timely and did not show any problems. As planned, the four protagonists of the mission, Hayley Arceneaux, Sian "Leo" Proctor, Chris "Hanks" Sembroski and the commander and financier Jared Isaacman, left Resilience about 45 minutes after ditching to move to the recovery vessel of the space company. by Elon Musk, then on the ground transported by a helicopter.

The astronauts have confirmed that their conditions and their mood have always been excellent: they will be remembered as the first civilians to have flown around the Earth without belonging to any astronautical corps or governmental body.

The launch of Inspiration4, Thursday, September 16, when it was 2:02 in Italy (photo: SpaceX / Inspiration4 Photos) Launched Thursday morning from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral up to an altitude of 575 kilometers, a once in orbit they also drew live (Proctor), played the ukulele (Sembroski) and carried out a series of medical-scientific experiments, mostly oriented to the study of the behavior of the human body in conditions of microgravity. Most of them was coordinated by Arceneaux, the first person to fly beyond the atmosphere with a prosthesis, an artificial left femur that replaces the bone lost due to an osteosarcoma discovered when she was 10 years old. Apart from historical records, this is the most significant data of a mission organized to demonstrate how space can be increasingly accessible, inclusive and, at the same time, a communicative platform of extraordinary effectiveness.

It may seem a paradox, given that Inspiration4 was fully funded by Isaacman - an estimated $ 200 million at least - yet its commercial nature cannot diminish the mission's importance. For this reason, once the splashdown has taken place, it is important to understand how and above all if the mission has achieved the promised results. Was it yet another demonstration of the power of the space billionaire on duty, or something different? And in the second hypothesis, what will its legacy be?

Space for everyone (they can always afford it)

The Inspiration4 crew overlooking the "dome" specially created on the Resilience capsule (photo: SpaceX / Inspiration4 Photos) Announced with a 30-second commercial at the 2021 Super Bowl, Inspiration4 was presented with the aim of stimulating interest in space travel and raising funds for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis , specializing in pediatric oncology. The same where Arceneaux was treated as a child and where she now works as a medical assistant. To achieve the goal, the commercial specified the criteria that would guide the selection of the crew: a seat, the one that went to Arceneaux, would be assigned to an employee of the St. Jude. Another, ended up in Sembroski, would have been drawn from those who had made donations of any size to the hospital. While the last one, assigned to Proctor, would have been destined for the best project for the creation of an online store with the software of Shift4Payments, the company of which Isaacman is the managing director.

It means opening the space to everyone, that is, to realize what Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson promised, but also by Musk when he reiterates his desire to make humanity extra-planetary? No, or at least not immediately, we cannot always afford to spend half a million dollars for a suborbital jump with Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin, or a few million for a SpaceX trip, perhaps around the Moon, as the millionaire will do in 2023. founder of Zozotown, Yusaku Maezawa. Or, always don't know someone like Isaacman, ready to distribute his Outer Air Tickets for some reason.

Dennis Tito, the first space tourist in history. It went into orbit on April 28, 2001 (photo: Nasa) However, it would be wrong not to grasp the differences between space tourism inaugurated 20 years ago by Dennis Tito, operated "by concession" by national bodies highly paid to do so (Roscosmos first, NASA later) , and that of the new generation. Costs and prices have changed (always prohibitive but lower), the means (now reusable as the Resilience, which returned from space on 2 May last), the operators (private) and the frequency of flights: between 2001 and 2021 the spaces tourists were seven. Since July and in less than 60 days they have become more than double.

This is the sign of a progressive erosion of the entry barriers to the sector. Although only in its infancy, the process is evident both on an institutional or industrial level - the new space economy - as well as on a commercial level. In this sense, it is significant that Sian Proctor, a finalist who was then excluded from the NASA astronautical corps in the 2009 selections, nevertheless fulfilled his dream of flying beyond the atmosphere. It is a confirmation, perhaps even cryptic, of how the goal of "inspiring people to travel in space" heralded by Musk and Isaacman is no longer science fiction. Or it is less and less.

The success of crowdfunding in support of St. Jude, to which it is still possible to contribute, confirms this: a perfect blend of philanthropy and marketing, Inspiration4 had raised 31 million dollars before launch . In less than 72 hours in orbit, the figure has exceeded 55 million and has arrived, while these lines are written, to more than 60, which will be added to the 100 personally paid by Isaacman in the hospital coffers and to the 50 that Elon Musk, immediately after the crew return to Earth, he has made it known he will donate.

The crew of Inspiration4 shortly after returning to Earth. From left: Hayley Arceneaux, Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski (photo: SpaceX / Inspiration4 Photos) As evident, this is not just a symbolic achievement. And the clarification is also valid with regard to the experience aboard the Arceneaux: her performance provided data on the behavior of a prosthetic apparatus in orbit. A field of study followed by pilot projects such as the "Para-Astronaut Project" of the European Space Agency, developed, explained Luca Parmintano, "to understand how to calibrate training and ensure that sooner or later a carrier or a bearer of physical disability contributes to the exploration of space ". It is another change; is the beginning of a path that will help agencies and individuals to identify the characteristics of the necessary training.

The fact that to carry out surveys and measurements, Arceneaux has used tools available to anyone such as Apple Watch and the ultrasound scanner Portable Butterfly iQ +, is yet another proof of a project capable of confirming the increased accessibility of space and (yes) advertising.

Inspire, promise, communicate

Precisely in the field of communication Inspiration4 recorded another sensational result: anticipated by the first "near real time" series on a space mission and followed, during launch, by the first live broadcast in Netflix history, the mission was more exposed than any coeval extra-terrestrial operation. . It is significant to note that the media preferred it to activities on the International Space Station and the return to Earth of the Shenzou-12 capsule. And so that the Chinese mission, which ended successfully in the Gobi desert a few hours before the landing of Isaacman and his companions, brought back home after 90 days on the Tiangong station the commander Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, the three remaining taikonauts long in space in the history of China, a space protagonist far more cumbersome than any private enterprise.

September 18, 2021: the three taikonauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo immediately after returning to Earth (photo: Xinhua). Because? For what, from its name, Inspiration4 represents: a promise, a (being able) to strive for something better. It is the space-based activities evoked by a non-governmental mission of ordinary people that fascinate insiders and attract future investments. It is the improvements to collective life that a more open strategic sector could guarantee that make Isaacman's project something capable of indicating new directions. And it is accessibility to the last frontier, an accessibility that at all costs is to be perceived as growing, that makes everyone dream, first of all future generations.

Not that worries and skeptics are lacking , for legitimate reasons such as the environmental impact or the fallout on the geopolitical balance of private activities, but the success of Inspiration4 cannot be diminished. After all, as Isaacman said immediately after returning, it is as if the mission had just begun.

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