I’d Be More Inspired If It Was Me In The Seat (Updated)

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Yeah, geez, I’m trying to get inspired here by Inspiration4, SpaceX’s latest launch. Call me crazy, or jaded or just thick as a mud fence, but it’s not coming. Maybe someone can help me peel the clouded scales from my eyes. Maybe it’s those cheap looking Sci-Fi space suits or maybe I was expecting to swoon over the sheer audacity of it. But I got nothin’.

Having lanced that carbuncle, the thing I am most impressed with is that we won’t have to argue about whether the four-person crew are astronauts, given that they’ll spend three and half days orbiting almost 300 miles above the Karman line. The working press is calling them “amateur astronauts” but the term I like better is tournauts. And they really are tourists. The “science” they’re doing sounds to me like growing second heads on flatworms or watching spiders weave webs in space, both of which have been done on the ISS. Frankly, if it was me, I’d just keep my nose pasted to the windows and to hell with explaining the justification.

By the way, the flight is also doing the rather admirable earthly task of raising money for St. Jude Hospital. Indeed, one of the crew members is a St. Jude cancer survivor, 29-year-old Hayley Arceneaux, and Christopher Sembroski, 42, won his seat in a St. Jude raffle.

There are other things to be impressed by, actually. In fact, the single biggest thing may be the billionaire financing this ride: Jared Isaacman. He’s not in the mega billion class with Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos and even trails Richard Branson by a little, but he’s every bit as precocious, according to this Forbes profile. He dropped out of high school to seize business opportunities he would have otherwise not had time for. His major wealth is rather recent, when he took Shift4, a payment processing service, public. You may know the name Draken International. It provides multimillion-dollar training contracts—including tactical aircraft—to the U.S. military. Isaacman launched Draken (at Lakeland-Linder Airport) and at one point, had the world’s largest fleet of privately owned tactical military aircraft—about 100.

Isaacman has a taste for the high-end, expensive thrill ride and Inspiration4 may be the penultimate. (So far.) The exact cost of this trip is unknown, but it’s believed to be under $200 million and possibly around $100 million. Even if the lower figure is accurate, it will not make orbital space travel accessible to the masses, unless you consider people who can write a check for say, $20 million—or even $5 million—your average first class airline passenger.

These flights are being compared to airline travel but no matter how much SpaceX pledges to shave launch costs, the comparison is flawed, if not ludicrous. If your memory has withstood the ravages of time, you’ll recall the Space Shuttle was once touted as “shirt-sleeve technology.” Cheap and readily available. Two vehicle losses in 135 launches put an end to that fallacy. Just as soon as you think you’ve got this rocket thing figured out, something blows up because you deluded yourself into thinking it couldn’t. Not that this should deter anyone. Nor surprise anyone.

Whether by design or by fate, Isaacman’s choice to fly the first SpaceX tourist mission may be shrewd. The guy’s history shows he’s fiercely genius at seeing business opportunities where others don’t and who knows what kind of inspiration he’ll come back with after 50-plus orbits of the blue marble.

And here the usual tip of the hat to Elon Musk. SpaceX is not quite 20 years in the business, but its launch cadence is killing its competitors, it’s recovering boosters routinely and driving down launch costs. Trips to the ISS are now getting as routine as such things can get. SpaceX has absolutely punked Boeing, who nearly lost its Starliner capsule in a low orbit test and finally, ignominiously, had to send the spacecraft back to the factory. If SpaceX didn’t exist, who would be doing this work?  

While I’m down with the idea of space thrill rides in general, I’m naturally inclined to cast a little shade on them simply because I’m not wealthy enough to ever afford one even though I know I am richly deserving of such an experience. If this sounds like I am taking the low road and succumbing to that basest of vile human frailties, jealousy, I freely admit it.

That’s why to set the world right, some billionaire should buy me a seat on one of these things. You could have no more honest set of eyeballs recording the passing scenery as ya’ll fool around with those science projects. I’d resist doing the cartoons.

Sunday Update

It went it up, it came down on Saturday evening, splashing down in a mill-pond-calm Atlantic Ocean east of Florida. Fact I didn’t know: That’s the first Atlantic splashdown since 1969. SpaceX has heretofore used the Gulf of Mexico west of Florida and all but one of the Apollo flights were in the Pacific.

Evidently, the flight was flawless. There were some minor issues with a fan and the waste management system, but on balance, Inspiration4 proved SpaceX’s autonomous flight hardware and software. Quite an accomplishment, really.

Press coverage has been mixed thus far. The Washington Post led with it prominently, but The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and a host of mainstream news websites put it well below the fold, to the extent you had to search for it to find it. No soft feature stories on the Sunday morning shows. I find this curious on a weekend of relatively slow news. I think it deserved more.  

The Post did run this bit of fascinating video showing the parachute deployment. They got some kinda reefing system on those canopies. You see the drogues deploy, the mains release and then a full 20 seconds before the mains fully inflate. This is nothing new to returning spacecraft but it’s cool to see it in detail.

What they were less good at was the broadcasts from the spacecraft in orbit. The footage I saw was underexposed and the view I really wanted to see—that picture-window cupola pointed at earth—was poorly framed and shot. Given how good SpaceX is at graphics, this was disappointing. Maybe they’ll work on that for the next one, by which time no one will be interested, probably. I’m looking forward to an intelligent interview with Jared Isaacman. In the meantime, Space.com did this (sort of excruciating) report during the crew’s training.

What’s next? It’s going to get interesting and busy. Another SpaceX flight is planned to send three tourists and a professional astronaut to the International Space Station for 10 days. The Russians are about to launch a two-person film crew to the ISS in early October and Tom Cruise is evidently in discussions about a movie shot aboard the ISS. The joint is going be hopping like a 7-11 on Friday night.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is on one of those flights to the ISS and in 2023, he is scheduled to fly to the Moon and back in SpaceX’s Starship vehicle, once the company gets done blowing it up for the test phase. No landing, of course, just a reprise of Apollo 8 with, ironically, eight total people aboard. As Isaacman did for Inspiration4, Maezawa bought all the seats for what Elon Musk said was “a lot of money.” Any guess on what he’s paying? The ISS tickets are advertised at $55 million, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the lunar jaunt costs the full ton—a billion.

Almost as expensive as owning a Baron.

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50 COMMENTS

  1. Paul your starting to sound like an old geezer 🙄.
    Participation in aviation related activities is on the decline and your part of the problem, not the solution. Perhaps a change of occupation is in order….maybe Walmart greeter?

  2. Got a case of the Meh-h-h-s now? Wait until they describe the science experiments carried out by the first batch of paying passengers in the World’s First Revenue Flight Of A 3D-Printed Electric Powered Autonomous Multicopter.

  3. Paul, I find that you ‘re much more impressed with this than you profess to be. In particular, you’re impressed with Elon Muck and his SpaceX accomplishments, as am I. Remember that he could have taken his early gobs of money and played for the rest of his life, but instead he’s given us Tesla (transformed the whole idea of electric cars) and SpaceX.

  4. “Cartoon” describes this event perfectly, from the cartoon drawings on the wall to the “tournaut’s” flight clothing that’s right out of the Jetteson’s cartoon animation series. Space flight is no longer about exploration and putting one’s life on the line to accomplish what has never been done before. It’s just a new opportunity for the ultra-wealthy to grab the spotlight for their glory as they bathe in whatever satisfaction they get from looking down on the rest of us. Expect the video game shortly, if it hasn’t already been released.

  5. Rockets are hard, space is even harder, the fact that private companies are doing it is amazing. Most of all though, we have a new generation of engineers and scientists doing it, and in innovative and lower cost ways. That is truly inspiring.

  6. “That’s why to set the world right, some billionaire should buy me a seat on one of these things. You could have no more honest set of eyeballs recording the passing scenery as ya’ll fool around with those science projects. ”

    I can think of nobody better to do an objective “ultimate pilot report” on a space launch than Paul.

    We would get the “warts and all” objectivity missing from the “Gosh–Golly–Gee, look what I DID!” of non-aviation reports. We would also get the deeper MEANING of the flight–Paul’s wry and sometimes acerbic commentary.

    • The most honest eyeballs? As with pederast priests and Presidents who lie 30,000+ times in four years, be very wary of others declaring THEY are the most honest, ethical, reliable and objective anything.
      Bertorelli can spin a colorful (sometimes malapropped) yarn but when he and his copilot were caught 99% heads down/inside during a Bristell light sport demo flight for a half hour or more on a sunny VFR day in busy Florida airspace, he did not ‘fess up and promise to fly safer as the reporter expected. Instead (sadly like a certain self-absorbed and vain President) he attacked the messenger/truth-teller in the most vicious insulting terms. When called on that, he refused to retract or apologize. Credibility? Candor? The billionaire could find a more honest pick I’m sure.

  7. With all due respect, I don’t understand why AvWeb, AOPA, Flying, & other AVIATION news outlets cover spaceflight at all. I own a 1946 Aeronca Champ & two vintage gliders; my flying never even gets close to the tropopause. The only aspect of spaceflight that interests me as a pilot is whether these operations pose a threat to aviation. Otherwise, if I wanted to read about spaceflight, I’m sure I could find many sources of information.

    • Yeah, I can’t imagine there is any crossover interest between GA and space flight. Possibly as a way to increase revenue the folks at Avweb decided to cover space stories occasionally. Seeing as we’re here anyways probably a good idea to give us another page to click on. GA is way more varied than your 75 year old plane and gliders. A significant number of pilots were hooked on flight by watching Apollo and STS launches and dream of getting the our turn.

  8. Paul

    Substitute small plane for space x, private pilot for (amateur astronaut or tournaut) and purpose instead of science in your piece and see how it reads.

    I hope you are being somewhat tongue in cheek because as an earlier poster said the attitude you expressed towards this flight is often expressed towards GA by those who cannot find the time or money to participate.

    I personally am enthused that private space flight is happening since the US government has other spending priorities.

  9. I wish Donald Trump would buy a ticket on the next flight out. I would love to see him squeezed into one of those hot spacesuits, making a couple hundred orbits minimum. He has the money. But does he have the guts?

    • Several of Trump’s platform items like The Wall And his long-standing enthusiasm for aviation… especially the nude photos of then high-priced Slavic uhm “escort” Melania on a bearskin in the back of the Gulfstream [or was it the DC-99?] convinced me it was worth ignoring his prior negatives and taking a chance on a change
      BIG MISTAKE
      He quickly revealed himself to be more than a showman, sexist, and political anomaly but rather a demonstrable threat to public health and the fundamentals of democracy .
      Instead of a your proposal for just another fat cat brief orbital voyage I’d now rather see him in the Bruce Dern “Silent Running” role = a one-way deep space (NOT”Deep State”] journey tending crops with a robotic assistant

        • Roger D. : Those elitist’s [sic] what?
          I never watch MSNBC since its bias is complete and transparent .
          I watch Fox occasionally because they still have a few objective analysts… Very few . And it helps identify where the Delusionals are getting their misinformation …which is why I also hold my nose and watch/read Newsmax & OAN.
          I notice you offered NO factual contradiction to anything I said.
          Does that mean you concede Trump threatened Pence and sought to undermine democracy with his “Big Lie” simply to salve his ego while, like Abbott and deSantis today, disparaging public health officials thus costing American innocents their lives? Concede or not, he did …and was a big disappointment to me in doing so .

  10. To Daniel Berend:

    I’m keenly aware that GA is broader than my Champ & vintage gliders. I’m retired after 44 years as a magazine editor & writer, most of those with aviation magazines. I’ve flown a wide assortment of stuff from hang gliders & parachute canopies to jets. All that has been aviation, not space. I’m glad for you & anyone else who was inspired by space exploration to become involved in aviation, but I respectfully submit that these are two different realms, & I’m not interested in billionaires riding an unwinged object for which the atmosphere is just an obstacle to overcome.

  11. To John W:

    Sure, I read it, for two reasons:

    1. I think AvWeb has on its staff the two best living aviation writers in the English language—Paul Bertorelli & Paul Berge. Both are brilliant thinkers & superb writers. I will always read every word they publish.

    2. I was curious to see if Paul would tie the billionaire’s space romp to AVIATION. In my view, he didn’t.

    FWIW, I love archery—especially traditional archery (longbows & recurves)—but even though arrows “fly” through the air, I’m not interested in seeing AvWeb cover archery, even though some of my most memorable IFR cross-country flights were in a wonderfully equipped Piper Arrow III.

    • @Jan
      “I think AvWeb has on its staff the two best living aviation writers in the English language—Paul Bertorelli & Paul Berge. Both are brilliant thinkers & superb writers. I will always read every word they publish.”

      Well said. Jan W S. I entirely agree with you! (although I do actually find the space reporting interesting – for the admirable engineering achievements).

      Bob

  12. “Frankly, if it was me, I’d just keep my nose pasted to the windows and to hell with explaining the justification.”

    Love it! Cut the pretense.

    It’s like those GA guys getting sponsors for round-the-world flights to generate interest in STEM or aviation. It’s crap, you just want to fly cause it’s fun. And you want someone to pick up the tab.

  13. When I saw the title of this blog my stomach tightened in anticipation of the usual billionaire bashing — and the usual libertarian/conservative backlash. Happy to see the Avweb readership rise above that fray (mostly).

    Most mature sci-fi stories portray spaceflight as routine drudgery. Staples such as hyperspace or even fusion drives are sadly not around the corner, but contractor flight crews servicing permanent outposts may be. I think many observers sense this intuitively, and this is the actual source of Paul’s ennui.

    I’m in my mid-50s, and I hope to live long enough to see serious commercial exploitation of space resources beyond telecom and remote-sensing. And to forestall another typical debate, it’s acknowledged that the manned/robotic ratio of such enterprises depends on the state of technology at that time.

  14. If not Space X who? Probably Arian Space. Arian 5, was designed with human flight in mind, and apart from blowing up a couple of times in the early days is still able to take a capsule, and a trunk load of luggage and put it into either low earth orbit, or head straight for the stars.
    Cheaper than NASA but not as cheap as Space X, but then it does pay taxes…
    Now Arian 6, has been scaled back to be cheaper but does not go nearly so far, and does not have the same space at the top for capsules. Strange world.

  15. The early days of aviation weren’t for the common man, either. The first air-mail pilots flew over a majority of countrymen who didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing. Today we can ride in a cattle car with wings and go to a remote destination for less than the IRS mileage rate ($0.57/mile), assuming it’s even possible to drive there.

    In my career, I’ve ridden charter aircraft, both fixed and rotary wing, to remote job sites – I expect something similar will be the first practical use of commercial spaceflight (I’m not counting trips to the orbital 7-11). There still remains the one discovery that will make the commercialization of space a “must” – something that satisfies a human desire similar to the 500 billion dollars spent globally on cosmetics every year. Something that can only be made or obtained in space. When that discovery is made, the gold rush begins.

    One other aspect is Elon Musk’s desire to get a fragment of humanity away from Earth – he started out in software, and having backups is a good plan. The idea is nothing new, to quote one of my favorite science fiction authors:
    “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!”
    ― Larry Niven

    • The only thing I disagree with you about is that the early days weren’t for the common man. Actually, aviation started out much like space is now. First it was the scientists and engineers pushing the boundaries (Wright Brothers et al / Goddard), then the military and government got involved (WWI / WWII V2 & Sputnik) advancing the science, but it wasn’t long before the “common man” era began with barnstorming, racing, PanAm Clipper passenger flights, etc., (now Space Tourism).

      Government programs will always be large and ponderous. The latest fighter jet, for example, will always be exorbitantly expensive because in peacetime it’s as much about spreading cash to as many Congressional districts as possible as it is producing the next generation of fighter. That’s why I agree with you that this commercial grab-bag of space activities is critical to the advancement of the science. Just like aviation racing, barnstorming, first flight across the Atlantic, etc., had nothing to do with real science but everything to do with advancing the science of flight, so today the commercialization of space is laying the groundwork for advancements that no government program could ever conceive.

  16. Being old and having watched the Apollo moon shots lift off in person I just can’t get excited about launching things into earth orbit. I’ve tried for the last 50 years but I just can’t. Being an engineer I know they are overcoming enormous technical challenges and inventing cool things, but I still can’t get there.

    It probably won’t happen in my lifetime but let me know when we are ready to go somewhere besides in circles.

  17. For those that view this as “We did that 60 years ago”–you couldn’t be more wrong. Back then, we sent one person–a military pilot volunteered–into the first space shots. We have evolved to the point where space shots are NOT the exclusive domain of governments.

    As long as governments have sole control of “what’s up there”–progress will be stymied. Governments spend FAR more on each shot than private enterprise–and space is reserved for government agendas. Can you imagine if there were no private launches? No constellations of satellites bringing communications to the entire world?

    On a more personal level, can you imagine if “aeroplanes” were limited to government designs only? The progress would be slow (and subject to the whims of changing administrations–Russia is a good example). There would BE no “General Aviation”–and even NATIONAL AIRLINES do not have a good record for safety and effective transportation for the masses. Privatization is the reason the U.S. “used to be” the best place in the world for transportation for the masses–but ever-increasing government regulation is choking the life out of that dream. The U.S. “airplane maker for the world” title has been ceded to other countries–where real innovation is still allowed.