Four amateur astronauts returned from a three-day private spaceflight this weekend overflowing with enthusiasm about the experience. “Best ride of my life,” said Dr. Sian Proctor shortly after emerging from the Crew Dragon capsule.
Future customers for such a free-flying orbital experience, however, weren’t waiting for the initial reviews to express their interest in going to space. Even before the Crew Dragon spacecraft splashed down on Saturday night the Inspiration4 mission had already ignited a firestorm of interest.
“The amount of people who are approaching us through our sales and marketing portals has actually increased significantly,” said Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs for SpaceX, during a call with reporters after the space tourism mission landed. “There’s tons of interest rolling in now.”
The company has declined to release pricing information for the Inspiration4 flight, which was purchased by billionaire Jared Isaacman. However, according to sources, the cost of an individual seat on future orbital flights is expected to be less than $40 million, and SpaceX will seek to drive prices down further for human orbital flights.
“If you look at the track record of SpaceX, we’ve driven down launch costs overall,” Reed said. “When you look at what it really costs for us to be servicing the NASA [missions] or other things that we’re doing, we’re trying very hard to drive that down. And in opening up the market to these kinds of visions, we’re doing something nobody’s ever been able to do before. But you’ve got to keep driving that cost down.”
SpaceX first flew humans on its Crew Dragon spacecraft in May 2020, with a demonstration launch for NASA carrying astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station. Since then, the vehicle has launched two more operational crew missions for the space agency in addition to the first private mission.
Reed declined to speak about how many of the reusable vehicles SpaceX plans to build, but it currently has Endeavour, which is presently at the space station and has flown two flights; Resilience, also a veteran of two flights, which has been modified with a cupola for free-flying missions and does not go to a specific destination; and a third unnamed vehicle to be used for space station missions. With these three vehicles, SpaceX can likely accommodate at least six crew flights a year.
SpaceX could build more Crew Dragons for purely space tourism missions, Reed said. “If the demand is there, then we’ll want to look at what we can do to continue to grow that,” he said. “And then, on the horizon of course, is Starship. Starship will be able to carry a lot more people at once. So, you know, there’s really both options, and we have interest for both Dragons and Starships, which is pretty exciting.”
Starship remains under development, and it will launch to orbit on a Super Heavy rocket. It is not clear how soon the vehicle could be ready for human launches and landings—this seems at least a couple of years away, given the challenge of demonstrating propulsive landing coming back from orbit. However, a single Starship could easily carry dozens of people to orbit, instead of the four inside a Crew Dragon. NASA’s space shuttle holds the record for most people launched on a single spacecraft, with eight astronauts on the STS-61-A flight in 1985.
As it prepares for future customer missions, SpaceX will debrief the four amateur astronauts who flew on Crew Dragon to gauge their experiences over the three-day flight. Aside from a “minor” issue with a waste management fan, there appear to have been no technical glitches. SpaceX founder Elon Musk said he’s planning to add more amenities to future flights, such as a means to heat up food and Wi-Fi service from Starlink satellites already orbiting around the Earth.