Talking Points

Is SpaceX's Inspiration4 really an inspiration?

Sometime on Wednesday evening — or perhaps Thursday, if the weather on Merritt Island, Florida, doesn't hold — the first all-civilian crew will leave our little blue marble behind for a three-day orbit around Earth. When announcing the historic mission earlier this year, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk called it an "important milestone towards enabling access to space for everyone," teasing a future where "we're able to bring the cost down ... and make space accessible to all."

Inspiration4, as the mission is called, is indeed impressive, the first time "normal people" with minimal training will leave the planet, enter orbit, and return to Earth days later — a substantial advancement from the 11-minute joy ride Jeff Bezos took in July. But despite the lofty name, don't be fooled: Inspiration4 is not the victory for the everyman earthling that it's being passed off to be. 

I've been hugely critical of the billionaire space race, which recklessly pollutes our atmosphere and has the enormous opportunity cost of time, money, resources, and energy that could go toward more urgent planetary issues, like world hunger, global poverty, and the exacerbation of both due to climate change. Clean energy research, sustainable transportation innovations, waste management solutions, and the creation of high-paying jobs in green sectors would do far more for the average non-billionaire than a phallic rocketship ever will.

Still, we're being duped into thinking that SpaceX's civilian mission is "inspiring" because its passengers aren't professionals. For all the awed headlines, Inspiration4 is still the whimsy of a billionaire; the Falcon 9 rocket was chartered from SpaceX for somewhere south of $200 million by businessman Jared Isaacman, who's successfully washed the mission in feel-good PR. (Wednesday's voyage is part of a large fundraising effort for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a worthy cause even if the flight is a stunt.) 

As for his guests, Isaacman is taking 29-year-old St. Jude physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux, a child cancer survivor who will be the youngest American to go to space and the first with a prosthesis; Sian Proctor, a passed-over finalist from NASA's astronaut program who will become the fourth Black woman to go to space; and Chris Sembroski, an Iraq War veteran who was gifted his spot after his friend won it in a raffle. "[T]he crew is a wholesome, starry-eyed bunch, imbued with a sense of awe at what they're about to do," writes The Atlantic. "In many ways, their mission marks the beginning of a new era in American spaceflight."

It's hard not to be won over! But that's also the point. "Civilian" missions like Inspiration4 make space travel appear to be "accessible to all," despite the fact that spaceflight will be "a hobby solely reserved for billionaires and centi-millionaires for many years to come," as Business Insider writes. Yet if space tourism companies can get the general public to root for them, then they've effectively gotten us to buy into something that does not actually benefit us in any way. The opposite, in fact: due to that immense opportunity cost, it actively takes away from us.

We can absolutely applaud the strides made toward diversifying spaceflight on Wednesday while also keeping clear eyes on private space companies and their greater aims. Because whenever something tells you upfront to consider it an "inspiration," it's always good to ask yourself why.