What we lose when spaceflight goes private

Listen to the new season of Axios’ How it Happened: The Next Astronauts here.

The new era of private spaceflight — heralded by the all-civilian Inspiration4 crew — is at risk of lacking the transparency of missions led by NASA and other space agencies.

Why it matters: Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are trying to woo more customers in the coming years to help bring about their vision for humanity in space. Bringing in new customers hinges on those people having a clear picture of the risks of space travel.

Catch up quick: The Inspiration4 crew returned to Earth on Sept. 18 after launching to orbit three days earlier.

Sian Proctor, Chris Sembroski, Jared Isaacman and Hayley Arceneaux told Axios they all had incredible, even life-changing, experiences flying and training with SpaceX. Every day has been the best day of my life, and it’s only getting better,” Proctor told Axios just ahead of launch.The crew represents a shift in who is able to access space, expanding the definition of “astronaut” to more kinds of people than NASA has historically included.

Yes, but: The public didn’t have much access to the crew and their experiences while they were in orbit.

Much of this was logistical, according to Isaacman. Because of its purely commercial nature, Inspiration4 couldn’t use the full network of technology used for government missions.”We had no ground station coverage,” Isaacman told me after landing. “This was not a government mission.”

Background: Historically, access to information about space and human spaceflight has been governed by NASA and other space agencies that are largely committed to communicating with the public.

The act that established NASA in 1958 required the agency to “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof,” and that openness has remained through today.NASA also brings that openness to missions it flies through contracts with SpaceX. The company does air livestreams of NASA crews in orbit during flights to the International Space Station.

The big picture: Private companies like SpaceX are increasingly being tasked with building our future in space.

SpaceX hopes to one day build a city on Mars. Jeff Bezos dreams of creating large space stations in orbit. And NASA is hoping to use partnerships with private companies like these to fly astronauts to various destinations in space.Inspiration4 has shown that these private companies can create a future where more people from a variety of backgrounds can go to space.But these companies don’t necessarily have the same commitment to transparency as NASA does, and that could create a situation where important information isn’t shared readily.

Virgin Galactic’s flight with its founder Richard Branson in July, for example, violated rules set out by the Federal Aviation Administration around where its spaceplane could fly.

That error didn’t come out until a New Yorker story revealed the mishap. The live webcast of the launch — featuring flashy guest stars — never suggested anything was amiss. SpaceX also has a history of flouting FAA regulations in order to launch its own test rockets in Texas.

What to watch… whether future private missions with SpaceX will find ways to communicate with the public while in orbit as the company continues to launch private missions to space.

The bottom line: A future in space supported by private companies may not be as transparent for members of the public as the previous era in space driven by governments.

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