Wrestling with the risks of private missions to space

Axios’ “How it Happened: The Next Astronauts” podcast follows the first all-civilian space crew as they prepare for their historic mission.

The all-civilian Inspiration4 crew, launching to orbit this week, will force the space industry to contend with just how much risk ordinary people are willing to take on in order to build humanity’s future in space.

Why it matters: The private space industry’s goal of building an economy in space hinges on sending more people to orbit in the near future. But spaceflight is still an incredibly risky endeavor and it will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.

Professional astronauts are compensated for risking their lives to live and work in space, but private citizens — and their families — have to be willing to take risks without compensation.

Driving the news: Inspiration4 — the first all-civilian flight to orbit — is expected to launch from Florida on Wednesday at 8:02 p.m. ET.

The crew will spend three days aboard their SpaceX Dragon capsule living in space and performing experiments. Jared Isaacman, the commander of the mission and its organizer, is paying for the flight and had a hand in selecting the three other crewmembers — all ordinary people — flying to orbit with him. Sian Proctor was picked through a reality TV show-style competition for entrepreneurs, Hayley Arceneaux was chosen by her employer St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — the beneficiary of a fundraiser that’s part of the mission, and Chris Sembroski was chosen by raffle.

The big picture: Inspiration4 and the missions that follow it present risks that companies like SpaceX have to convince ordinary people to take if they want to eventually build a city on Mars.

“I’ll be very blunt. People are going to die. And if you don’t think that can happen, then you don’t understand the nature of the business,” Wayne Hale, an engineer who used to work for NASA, told Axios.

The intrigue: Private individuals can’t count on government regulations to keep them safe when they fly to space with private companies, at least not yet.

These missions aren’t regulated for the safety of the passengers or the crew onboard by the Federal Aviation Administration. Congress placed a moratorium on new crew safety regulations in 2004 in order to allow the private spaceflight industry to get off the ground and shore up a customer base. That means the FAA is allowed to regulate a private, crewed launch for the safety of people on the ground but not the “spaceflight participants” flying to orbit or suborbital flights in the case of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Between the lines: When people go to space, it affects the families they leave behind on the ground.

“You need to be prepared to sit down and have some hard discussions with the significant others in your life and explain to them why, if things don’t turn out well, it was still worth the risk,” Hale said.With Inspiration4, the families of the civilians flying to orbit haven’t had years to prepare for the emotional toll this mission could take. Instead, they’ve only had a handful of months to get ready.”I need him back safe and sound,” Erin Duncan-Sembroski, Chris Sembroski’s wife, told me. “And so I think I’ll really start celebrating when he’s back on the ground.”

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