SpaceX’s Surprisingly Secretive Inspiration4 Mission Is a Major Letdown

SpaceX’s Surprisingly Secretive Inspiration4 Mission Is a Major Letdown
The Inspiration4 crew inside the Crew Dragon. (Image: Inspiration4)

The all-civilian Inspiration4 crew has been in orbit for nearly two days, yet we’ve heard very little about what’s going on up there. SpaceX’s first private crewed mission to space has most certainly been that — private. The unexpectedly muted approach has made it anything but inspiring.

Inspiration4 launched at 8:02 p.m. EDT on Wednesday from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. The Resilience Crew Dragon, nestled atop a Falcon 9 rocket, embarked on a three-day mission to orbit with an exclusively private crew — and not a single NASA astronaut in sight. With the launch, SpaceX officially entered into the space tourism business, joining Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Chris Sembroski, and Hayley Arceneaux will now go down in history as being the first private crew flown to Earth orbit.

SpaceX pulled all the stops to make this futuristic luxury cruise as immune from criticism as possible. The optics are just about perfect, as the Inspiration4 mission — with two men and two women — is supposed to raise $US200 ($275) million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. And the achievements are truly headline-worthy, as the trip features the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft and the first person to go to space with a prosthetic body part, Arceneaux, who is also a cancer survivor.

The view of Earth from the Dragon Cupola. This is one of only four photos released to date, showing the crew inside the Crew Dragon.  (Image: Inspiration4) The view of Earth from the Dragon Cupola. This is one of only four photos released to date, showing the crew inside the Crew Dragon. (Image: Inspiration4)

Now don’t get me wrong: These are all undeniably awesome and commendable things, but there’s no mistaking the genuine goal of the mission, which is for SpaceX to set the stage for future big-ticket flights. The Elon Musk-led company eventually plans to charge $US50 ($69) million a seat for these trips; Isaacman, the billionaire founder of Shift4 Payments, paid an undisclosed amount for all four Inspiration4 seats.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to the whole space tourism thing, and I wish SpaceX and its employees well. What bothers me, however, is how the company, along with a surprising number of media outlets and space pundits, are framing the mission as something that’s going to make spaceflight more accessible to the broader public. As an example, the Washington Post recently quoted Alan Ladwig, head of To Orbit Productions, as saying the “Inspiration4 mission is of particular importance because three of the crew members are not wealthy” and that they are “people that could be our neighbours, people you went to school with, people you work with.”

Gimme a break. Moving forward, it’s doubtful that ultra-rich individuals will hand-select ordinary people to join them on similar missions. And even if they do, we’re still talking about a minuscule number of people, given the tremendous costs involved; you’re better off playing the lottery — but again, you’d need to make sure the jackpot is sufficiently huge.

Eventually, a long, long time from now, ordinary people might be able to afford quick sojourns to space. For now, it’s still very much out of reach — hence my interest in the Inspiration4 mission, and why I’m so disappointed about how things have gone down.

Because I can’t yet go to space, I was at least hoping to vicariously experience the mission from the eyes of a civilian crew. We obviously have the technology to make this happen, whether it be regular tweets, live webcams, interviews with the crew, or a steady flow of eye-popping photos and videos.

But what we’ve got so far is very little. A tweet from SpaceX on September 16 informed us that the crew is “healthy, happy, and resting comfortably,” and that before going to bed they “completed their first round of scientific research, and enjoyed a couple of meals.”

A short video of the Dragon Cupola — a glass dome from which the crew can view their surroundings — was also released on Thursday, and today we were blessed with four photos showing the crew inside the Crew Dragon.

There’s also a tweet from Inspiration4 confirming that the crew answered questions from patients at St. Jude, but no video or transcript of the session was provided. The crew released its in-orbit Spotify playlist and also spoke to Musk, which good for them, but who the hell cares. Oh, we’ve also learned that Isaacman did some sports betting from space and that he won a bit of money, which he will donate to charity. Gotta say, sports betting was not quite what I was expecting from this mission, and it’s sad to think this is among the few morsels of information we’ve been given.

After reaching out to both SpaceX and Inspiration4 for more information, a PR firm representing the mission responded: “We won’t be capturing live, but will continue to share assets and updates as they are sent down to us,” and that I should just follow updates on the Inspiration4 website. On that last point, the news section of the Inspiration4 website hasn’t been updated since the launch on Wednesday.

Looking around the web, it’s clear that other publications are experiencing similar frustrations.

“Not much information has been released since launch about the activities of the crew, who are the subject of an exclusive Netflix documentary,” writes the BBC. On the chat with Musk, Spaceflight Now’s William Harwood said there was “no immediate word on what they talked about or any details about the progress of the historic mission.” To which he added: “Unlike NASA space flights, in which space-to-ground communications between astronauts and flight controllers are carried out in the open, there has been no public radio traffic with the Inspiration4 crew and no downlinked photographs or video since reaching orbit Wednesday after launch from the Kennedy Space Centre.” Harwood’s article came out before the release of the four new pics, but his point still stands.

And it’s not as if there’s nothing to cover. The crew isn’t just floating around the capsule — they’re supposedly eating cold pizza, playing the ukulele, taking in spectacular views of Earth and space, and performing a trove of health-related science experiments. I was very much hoping to watch all of this, and while it was happening.

Alas, we come to the likely reason for the silent treatment: the aforementioned Netflix docuseries. The crew is spending a good portion of its time in space collecting video for the fifth and final episode of the series, which probably explains why we’re seeing so little. They’ve gotta keep all the good stuff under wraps, put it through the production wringer, and then package it all up for the public at a future date — that date being September 30. What makes this particularly frustrating is that Netflix promised to cover the mission in “near real-time,” and I don’t believe that’s happening.

Some of you may quibble, saying I need to be patient and that I’ll get to see all the good stuff in due time. But for me, it’s not the same thing. I was hoping to connect with this interesting crew as the mission was happening, but instead we’re being blacked out. And that sucks.