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Inspiration4 mission reveals an unexpected purpose for SpaceX Crew Dragon

Inspiration4 mission reveals an unexpected purpose for SpaceX Crew Dragon

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, designed to transport humans to space atop a Falcon 9 rocket, would only be used for official NASA missions. Not so, says a former astronaut who worked with SpaceX.

In fact, SpaceX’s latest crewed mission is just the start of a bold new era.

On Wednesday, the space-faring firm is set to launch the first all-civilian mission to orbit. Inspiration4 will launch from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, using a Falcon 9 rocket and a Crew Dragon capsule. The five-hour launch window is scheduled to open at 8:02 p.m. Eastern time.

The Crew Dragon capsule is perhaps best known for ferrying NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, but one of the figures behind its development tells Inverse that the team always had bigger plans in mind.

“Dragon was part of the whole process of achieving his [SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s] ultimate goal, which is making human life multi-planetary,” Garrett Reisman, former NASA astronaut who managed the SpaceX team that developed the Crew Dragon, tells Inverse.

Want to know more about Crew Dragon’s inception, SpaceX’s surprising spacesuits, and why failure was “not an option” for the Elon Musk-led company? Read the full interview with Garrett Reisman, only in MUSK READS+.SpaceX Crew Dragon: how it first came together

The Crew Dragon capsule was first developed as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program. When the space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA had to seek alternative methods to send its astronauts to the ISS. It rented seats on Russian Soyuz rockets taking off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Besides taking off halfway around the world away, these seats cost around $80 million each.

SpaceX and Boeing were tasked with developing a human-carrying capsule for missions a little closer to home. SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon crewed mission launched in May 2020, followed by two subsequent missions.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who flew on the Demo-2 mission.The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

But Reisman says that NASA missions were just one part of the plan. The Commercial Crew program always considered private missions as part of the future.

“I remember having lots of meetings with NASA as we talked about the Commercial Crew program, about how we can use these vehicles for other missions,” he says.

That would help invigorate the developing private spaceflight industry, opening up orbital flights to tourists and other interested parties.

“At the time, a lot of people I think doubted whether it would actually happen,” Reisman says. “There was a lot of questions about whether the business model would actually work. Would there be a market for this?”

The Inspiration4 crew undergo a training session.Inspiration4

SpaceX Crew Dragon: what comes after Inspiration4 mission

Based on SpaceX’s mission plans, there seems to be a healthy interest in private spaceflight:

  • The Inspiration4 mission in September 2021 will launch Jared Isaacman, founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, on a three-day trip into orbit with three other passengers. The mission will help raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
  • A planned Space Adventures mission no earlier than late 2021 will send up to four private citizens into space.
  • Axiom Space plans a series of missions to the ISS, with the first one no earlier than January 2022 and subsequent missions launching every six months. Axiom Space’s goal is to build a private space station over time, initially connected to the ISS. This space station would support commercial and research projects.

“That we’ve actually reached this point, it is immensely satisfying,” Reisman says.

Reisman’s team felt it could have happened sooner, however. He explains that, for the past five years, the team thought they were one year away from the first civilian Crew Dragon flight. But this deadline may have helped the team prepare for the future.

“If you don't plan for the best possible scenario, then from day one, you're ruling out the possibility of achieving the best possible schedule,” he says.

But these missions are just a small part of what’s to come. SpaceX is currently developing the Starship, a fully-reusable rocket designed to launch over 100 tons or 100 people to space at a time.

SpaceX Starship lifting off.SpaceX

The ship’s predecessor was first unveiled in 2017 with the stated goal of replacing current-day rockets like the Falcon 9. This is despite the fact that the Starship measures 394 feet tall with the attached booster, eclipsing the Falcon 9 at just 230 feet.

“Even though Starship is gargantuan compared to Dragon...if it's truly 100 percent reusable, it might be cost-effective just to start using Starships, and not Dragons anymore,” Reisman says.

Revenue from SpaceX’s current operations will be used to fund these more ambitious goals. Musk has set the ambitious target of sending the first humans to Mars by the mid-2020s. This would act as a stepping stone to establishing a self-sufficient city on Mars by 2050.

A Mars city, Musk predicted in October 2019, would cost between $100 billion and $10 trillion.

Crew Dragon’s days may be numbered, but it could enable Musk’s overall goal to get to Mars.

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