Inspiration4 Civilian Mission Launches to Orbit on SpaceX Falcon 9

Credit: SpaceX

A SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully launched Inspiration4, the first all-civilian, non-government human spaceflight, from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on Sept. 15 to begin its three-day mission in low Earth orbit.

Lifting off from KSC’s Launch Complex 39A at 8:02 p.m. EDT, the vehicle placed the Crew Dragon spacecraft into a 585-km (360-mi.)  orbit, taking it to an altitude greater than the International Space Station (ISS) and making it the highest human spaceflight in a stable orbit for more than a decade.

Marking the 23rd launch by SpaceX this year, and the second of three human-spaceflight missions planned for 2021, the mission's second stage completed a faultless orbital insertion as it reached an altitude of 124 mi. just over 9 min. after liftoff. The first stage, which was on its third flight following two GPS satellite deployment missions in November 2020 and June this year, also successfully recovered to SpaceX’s drone ship, "Just Read The Instructions."

The Crew Dragon, which was the same vehicle used in November 2020 for the NASA Crew-1 mission – the first SpaceX operational crewed flight to the ISS – joined a Crew Dragon and a cargo Dragon already docked to the space station.

Unlike any previous Dragon, the Inspiration4 vehicle configuration includes a viewing cupola in place of the standard ISS docking mechanism. The 2,000 sq.-in. (13.8 sq.-ft.) screen is the largest continuous viewing area ever launched into orbit according to SpaceX.

The nose cone was opened to reveal the cupola shortly after second-stage separation, which occurred just over 12 min. into the flight. Using its Draco thrusters, the Dragon then performed two orbit circularization burns to transfer to a stable altitude at 357 mi.

Commanded by Shift4 Payments billionaire founder Jared Isaacman, who paid for the flight as a fundraiser for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, the crew also includes Hayley Arceneuax, a physician’s assistant at St. Jude’s, and Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and space educator. The fourth crew member, Chris Sembroski, is a Lockheed Martin engineer and Air Force veteran.

Seen pumping his fists with excitement as the crew experienced just over 3g during ascent, Isaacman commented to mission controllers at SpaceX on reaching orbit that “few have come before, and many are about to follow. The door is open now. It's pretty incredible.” Seen as a harbinger of a new wave of civilian space flights, the Inspiration4 crew will conduct a series of medical and science experiments in collaboration with SpaceX, the Translational Research Institute for Space Health at Baylor College of Medicine, and investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine.

During the mission, the crew will complete 15 orbits per day compared with 16 for the ISS, which travels slightly faster due its closer proximity to Earth. The arrival of the Inspiration4 crew also marks a new record for the number of people simultaneously in space, bringing the total to 14, including crews currently on board the ISS and China’s Tiangong station.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.