Contest for Crew Dragon seat well short of fundraising goal

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WASHINGTON — A competition to raffle off a seat on an upcoming Crew Dragon mission has raised only a small fraction of its goal so far, but the contest organizers say that they will continue the fundraising effort even after the contest ends.

SpaceX and billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman announced the “Inspiration4” mission Feb. 1, which will fly Isaacman and three other people on a Crew Dragon spacecraft late this year. They will spend several days in orbit before returning to Earth.

One of the three available seats will go the winner of a sweepstakes taking place this month, intended to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. People can purchase entries through the Inspiration4 website through Feb. 28, with a winner selected on or around March 1.

However, as of early Feb. 16, the contest had raised just under $9 million, according to its website. That leaves the competition well short of the goal of $100 million, plus another $100 million that Isaacman plans to donate to St. Jude.

Brian Bianco, a spokesman for Inspiration4, said the $100 million fundraising goal goes beyond this month’s competition. “The $100 million goal was set for the duration of the mission between now and launch and we will be sharing different opportunities and incentives throughout the coming months beyond the current sweepstakes opportunities,” he told SpaceNews Feb. 15.

“This is a 2021 initiative. Crew selection process is just the first part. We are just getting started with helping raise funds for @StJude … lots more to come including the corporate contributions,” Isaacman tweeted.

That’s different from what Isaacman said when he announced the competition. “The other [seat] will be awarded through a national fundraising campaign that begins today and runs through the month of February,” he said in a Feb. 1 call with reporters, after stating that one seat would be donated to the hospital to allow one of its employees to fly on the mission. “Our goal is to raise over $200 million, and I’m contributing the first $100 million to this great effort.”

He also said at that briefing that while the contest is not intended to pay for the flight itself, which he has already funded, he hoped the money raised “will certainly far exceed the cost of the mission itself.” He did not disclose how much he paid for the flight.

Some in the industry see the competition as a way to gauge public interest in commercial human spaceflight independent of the cost. It is difficult, though, to determine the number of people participating based on amount raised alone. The contest sells entries at a rate of 10 per dollar, with a minimum purchase of $10. The maximum number of entries per person is 10,000, although the competition offers additional perks for those who donate more than $1,000. It is also possible to enter the contest without donating.

The contest has not lacked publicity. In addition to the media attention from the Feb. 1 announcement, Inspiration4 ran a 30-second ad for the contest Feb. 7 during the Super Bowl, one of the most-watched events in the United States. The ad cost the project more than $5 million for the airtime alone, based on published ad rates for the game, in addition to the cost to produce the ad itself.

One complaint many people have expressed online about the competition is that it is limited to “U.S. persons” as defined under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which includes citizens and permanent residents. Isaacman said that while he wanted to open the contest to a wider audience, the schedule of the mission made that impossible.

“The issue was timing of regulatory approval,” he tweeted. “Crew selection will be complete by first week of March… training begins mid-March. It would have been impossible to get approvals in time. International astronauts with NASA have years of notice.”

Axiom Space’s first crewed mission, Ax-1, will include Canadian and Israeli citizens on its Crew Dragon flight to the International Space Station scheduled for early 2022. The company announced the crew Jan. 26, although the Israeli participant, Eytan Stibbe, was revealed in November 2020. It’s unclear how long the approval process took for the non-U. S. crew on the flight.