SpaceX announces first mission to space with all-civilian crew

SpaceX announced plans Monday for the first all-civilian mission to space, a major milestone for private spaceflight and the nascent space tourism industry.

The mission aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft will feature a four-person crew led by Jared Isaacman, the founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, a Pennsylvania-based payment processing company. The flight is expected to launch sometime in the fourth quarter of this year, according to SpaceX.

“When you’ve got a brand new mode of transportation, you have to have pioneers,” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk told NBC News’ Tom Costello in an interview with NBC Nightly News. “Things are expensive at first, and as you’re able to increase the launch rate, increase the production rate, refine the technology, it becomes less expensive and accessible to more people.”

Private citizens have flown to space before, but these space tourists typically paid to hitch rides into orbit alongside trained NASA astronauts or Russian cosmonauts. Isaacman’s flight will be the first time a crew made up entirely of private citizens will venture into space. The crewmembers will undergo training by SpaceX, including mission simulations for emergency preparedness and how to handle orbital mechanics during their flight.

Isaacman said in a statement that the mission, dubbed Inspiration4, is “the realization of a lifelong dream and a step towards a future in which anyone can venture out and explore the stars.”

Anyone, that is, with millions of dollars to spend on the ride. SpaceX did not disclose how much Isaacman paid for the flight.

But Musk said he hopes these early joyrides lay the groundwork for more space tourism in the future, beyond just billionaires who are able to afford the flights now.

“It’s like when America went to the moon in ’69 — it wasn’t just a few people, humanity went to the moon,” he said. “We all went there with them. And I think it’s something similar here.”

An all-civilian mission is a huge stepping stone for the private spaceflight industry, but it also presents enormous challenges. Musk said SpaceX’s top priority will be to maximize the safety of the crew.

“Any mission where there’s a crew onboard makes me nervous,” he said. “The risk is not zero.”

The expedition is part of a charity initiative to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In addition to giving $100 million to St. Jude, Isaacman said he is donating the three other seats in the Dragon spacecraft to crewmembers who will be specially selected for the humanitarian flight.

“I appreciate this tremendous responsibility that comes with commanding this mission and I want to use this historic moment to inspire humanity while helping to end childhood cancer here on Earth,” Isaacman said.

The Inspiration4 mission will travel into orbit aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX has been launching rockets from Launch Complex 39A since 2017, and the historic pad was previously used for both space shuttle flights and Saturn V launches during NASA’s Apollo moon program.

During the multiday mission, the Dragon capsule will circle Earth once every 90 minutes along a customized flight path, according to SpaceX. At the end of the expedition, the spacecraft will re-enter the planet’s atmosphere and splash down off the coast of Florida.

Isaacman, a trained pilot who has flown both commercial and military aircraft, will command the historic mission. One spot on the flight is reserved for a St. Jude ambassador, while a second seat will be offered to a member of the public as part of a charity drive during the month of February.

For the final spot on the flight, Isaacman and Shift4 Payments will select an entrepreneur “who utilizes the new Shift4Shop eCommerce platform, which empowers entrepreneurs to build and grow successful eCommerce businesses online,” the company said in a statement. The competition began Monday and will run until Feb. 28, with the winner selected by an independent panel of judges.

Isaacman said the announcement of the Inspiration4 flight marks “the first step of a very exciting journey.”

The first space tourist, American multimillionaire Dennis Tito, launched to the International Space Station on an eight-day expedition in 2001. Tito reportedly paid $20 million to fly to the orbiting outpost aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Since then, only six other private citizens have flown in space, though the space tourism industry could soon be ramping up as companies such as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origins and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic begin offering orbital jaunts later this year.

Last month, SpaceX also announced that the first private space station crew, led by former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, will launch to the orbiting lab next January. Lopez-Alegria will be joined by three men who are each paying $55 million to spend eight days at the space station.

In 2018, SpaceX said Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, founder and CEO of the fashion retailer Zozo, would be the first private passenger to fly around the moon on a mission that is planned for sometime in 2023. Isaacman’s flight is not expected to venture as far, but Musk joked that SpaceX is open to other itineraries.

“It’s his mission,” Musk said. “He can go wherever he likes.”