Foust Forward | Inspiration and resilience in commercial human spaceflight
A cover of an issue of Time magazine in August featured the four crew members of the Inspiration4 mission, all wearing matching jumpsuits with their arms folded and staring off into the distance. The cover declared that the upcoming commercial Crew Dragon mission was “three days that could change humanity.”
Weeks after their return, humanity doesn’t seem particularly different. The flight itself went well (minor issues with the spacecraft’s toilet notwithstanding) and got plenty of media attention, but after splashdown quickly faded from the public zeitgeist.
One person who was closely watching with Inspiration4 was someone intimately familiar with the spacecraft. The mission was the second flight for the Crew Dragon spacecraft dubbed Resilience, which first launched NASA’s Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station last November, returning to Earth in early May.
The commander of Crew-1 was NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins. “It’s really amazing if you think about it. We just splashed down May 2 and Resilience is in space again,” he said in an interview Sept. 17, two days into the three-day Inspiration4 mission.
He said he spoke informally with the Inspiration4 crew before their launch. “It was an opportunity to share the little nuggets we had as a crew, what we experienced,” he said. He advised them that being in the capsule was like four people camping in the same tent. “If one person gets up to go to the bathroom, pretty much everybody is going to get up.”
There was also the experience of being inside the spacecraft on the launch pad while the Falcon 9 rocket is being fueled. “It’s amazing, as you’re sitting on the rocket as it’s being fueled, how much it talked to you,” he recalled, in the form of vibrations and banging noises as valves open and close.
Hopkins was following the Inspiration4 mission from Hawaii, not on vacation but instead attending the AMOS space surveillance conference. The growing population of satellites and debris in orbit is as big a concern for NASA as it is for the rest of the space community. “This is a good opportunity to see what the community as a whole is looking at in terms of space situational awareness,” he said.
Space situational awareness is an increasing concern for human spaceflight, with the International Space Station more frequently maneuvering to avoid debris. On the Crew-2 Crew Dragon mission in April, the astronauts on board got back into their pressure suits hours after launch and braced for a close approach with a debris object identified only minutes in advance — a false alarm, as it turned out.
Hopkins said he wondered if the close relationship between NASA and the Space Force on tracking debris on NASA’s crewed missions would extend to fully commercial missions like Inspiration4. Fortunately, there were no close approaches, or conjunctions, reported during the three-day flight, and a SpaceX official who was scheduled to appear at the AMOS conference spoke by video instead, staying behind at SpaceX headquarters to support conjunction analysis for the mission.
Inspiration4 may not have changed humanity, but it was clearly a step forward for commercial space. Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said at a briefing that the mission “set a pretty good bar” for how to prepare for, and what to expect, for future missions. “The amount of people who are approaching us through our sales and marketing portals has actually increased significantly,” he said after the flight.
That’s music to NASA’s ears, which sees missions like Inspiration4 as evidence supporting its low Earth orbit commercialization strategy. “It’s another example of where we’d like to go in Earth orbit eventually,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said of Inspiration4 shortly before its launch.
Hopkins said he, too, supported commercial missions. “More people having the opportunity to go to space is a good thing,” he said of Inspiration4. “I look forward to, maybe after they’re back, getting to hear some of their stories and trade notes about living on Resilience.”
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the October 2021 issue.