From climbing mountains to flying fighter jets and more, here’s how four non-astronauts prepared for their flight to space.
Imagine this: you’ve won the lottery and you are going to space, accompanied by a billionaire, in Elon Musk’s aircraft. It sounds like a dream. However, it became a reality for air force veteran Chris Sembroski who won this trip to space in a lottery.
On September 15, 2021, four civilians headed to space for a three-day journey around Earth. The mission—aptly titled “Inspiration4”—was launched from Florida and represents the first all-civilian crew heading to space. The journey aims to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
In an interview, the SpaceX Senior Director of Human Spaceflight Benji Reed said, “This is significant and historic because it’s going to be the highest that any humans have gone into orbit since the Hubble [Space Telescope] servicing missions.” This is also a remarkable moment for space-tech startups that want to follow in Musk’s footsteps and make space accessible for all.
Who is part of this mission?
Billionaire CEO of Shift4 Payments Jared Isaacman is commanding the mission. He is joined by geoscientist Sian Proctor (selected through an entrepreneurial competition), St. Jude’s employee Hayley Arceneaux and Sembroski. Together, they will circle the low-Earth orbit for three days in SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft called “Resilience”. The spacecraft will be bolstered by the Falcon 9 rocket.
Just 24 hours before lift-off, Isaacman shared that he had “no jitters”. He was just excited to get going.
How did they prepare for the flight?
The crew engaged in over five months of training—inspired by NASA’s program—before boarding the rocketship to space. This involved observing rocket launches, climbing mountains and flying fighter-jets, among other things.
- Observing and understanding
They kicked off by observing a SpaceX launch to see what they were getting into. Next, they experienced a simulation to understand how the launch would feel. The crew understood how the change in gravitational pull upon entering space would affect their bodies.
- Climbing Mount Rainier to build resilience
In early May, they climbed Mount Rainier in Washington. Mount Rainier is an active volcano of over 14,000 feet. Isaacman felt that climbing the mountain helped the crew build mental toughness. He said, “They [the crew] got comfortable being uncomfortable, which is pretty important.” He added that some of the conditions on Mount Rainier are similar to how it will be on Crew Dragon, their spacecraft. He explained, “Food sucks on the mountain. Temperatures can suck on the mountain. Well, that’s no different than Dragon. We don’t get to dial up and down the thermostat…And I can tell you the food isn’t great in space, from what we’ve tasted so far.”
- Dedicated studying
The next task was brushing up on theory. They read over 90 training guides to learn about the Falcon 9 rocket that they will board, the Crew Dragon spacecraft, how spaceflight works and everything that can go wrong. “We have like 3,000 pages across 100 different manuals. It was a lot. I don’t think any of us really predicted that,” Isaacman shared.
- Experiencing simulations
Then came the time to experience being aboard the spacecraft without actually doing so. The crew witnessed the Crew Dragon simulation flights, including those that were 12-hour and 30-hour long, to get used to them. During one of these simulations, the Dragon pushed itself into Earth’s atmosphere. Three computers failed and the crew lost contact with mission control. If that wasn’t enough, Falcon 9’s parachutes also refused to deploy. Of the experience, Isaacman shared, “It felt very real. You’re living in it for 30 hours. The last 45 minutes, there was awareness from us in the capsule, and them on the ground, that there is a chance that this might not be actually a survivable situation.” However, they survived, and only they know how.
In a bid to get familiar with the environment, the crew also sat in an altitude chamber to experience low-oxygen conditions. This helped them understand their body’s capabilities and for how long they can go without an oxygen mask.
- Fighter-jet training
During training, Isaacman said that the crew had been “tearing up the skies in some fighter jets”. According to him, fighter jets are riskier than spacecraft. Mastering flying fighter-jets would help them be “nice and comfortable” while strapping into the Falcon.
Reviewing the entire training experience, Isaacman declared, “I definitely underestimated it to some extent.”
Undoubtedly, the journey is a win for commercial space travel. And for Arceneaux and Proctor, it also represents personal wins. While the former becomes the youngest American to fly in space, the latter is the first Black female pilot of a spacecraft.
This expedition paves the way for many more civilians to realize their space dreams. Alluding to this, Isaacman shared from inside the aircraft, “The door is now open, and it’s pretty incredible.”
Images Source: Flickr