Let's talk about Inspiration4

posted by Jeff | Sunday, September 26, 2021, 5:11 PM | comments: 0

The launch and return of the Inspiration4 mission very much lived up to its name. Four civilian, non-professional astronauts spent about three days in orbit. Unlike the sub-orbital flights by Branson and Bezos, this crew went well beyond the orbit of the ISS and stayed there for a few days. Only one of them was a billionaire, and he chose to use the opportunity to select others who represented hope, generosity and prosperity. All of it was used to raise over $200 million for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

The Virgin and Blue Origin stories attracted a lot of attention for not great reasons, mostly for billionaires being billionaires. Let me be clear that anything that advances the eventual democratization of space travel using reusable spacecraft is a good thing. It has to start somewhere. I think it's also true that we need a backup plan, because humanity clearly can't be trusted with its own survival on just one planet. But those first two flights were stunts that brough people to the edge of space, who promptly held press conferences. The Inspiration4 mission didn't involve the company CEO, and SpaceX is already pretty good at ferrying things to and from space.

The tourists definitely took a lot of pictures, and they did some light scientific research. Apparently they will open source whatever data comes from that. I think that in many ways, one of the lasting artifacts of the mission will be the documentary (on Netflix), which through the first four episodes has been completely excellent (and OMG who is picking the music, because it's amazing). Certainly the money raised will also have meaningful impact.

One of the more critical things that I've seen is something that dates back to the Apollo days: People ask why "we" spend time and energy on space when we have so many problems on the ground. I'm still surprised by this response because I think the answers are obvious. For one thing, we as a species and society are capable of doing more than one thing at a time. Space exploration has never come at the expense of something else, and it's not a zero-sum arrangement. Certainly we can ask questions about what our priorities are. I strongly believe there are not good reasons to accept that poverty exists, but it's a choice we make.

More importantly though, I think space travel does in fact serve as inspiration for what's possible. I totally get how easy it is to become cynical, that we're doomed to make the same mistakes over and over and never truly get better at being human. The last year and a half have made that view worse. But people leaving the planet, potentially going to another one entirely, that's the stuff of dreams. If we can achieve that, what else are we capable of? Seeing extraordinary achievement inspires us. Now wrap that up in the context of what it means to be in space, how vast it is, how relatively small, and temporary, people are. While some may feel this makes life pointless, I can't think of a greater motivator to make it count.


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