Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson already traveled to and from the edge of space this year, but last week, the phrase “amateur astronaut” officially earned a new meaning. Four “everyday people” returned Saturday from a three-day mission in Earth’s orbit, safe and sound.
The crew consisted of a physician’s assistant, a businessman, a data engineer and a geology professor. That’s right. There were no professional astronauts aboard the SpaceX ship that floated 357 miles (575 kilometers) above our planet — higher than the International Space Station.
And while the civilians’ view was beautiful, the breathtaking photos they took from their 360-degree cupola might represent far more than a future filled with space travel. They capture four people who symbolize that vision in a way Bezos and Branson… well, can’t.
“There is more than one road to space, there’s more than one road to exploration — and one of those roads is for you,” former NASA astronaut Cady Coleman tells me over Zoom, emphasizing the message the Inspiration4 mission exudes.
Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who funded the mission, purposely chose three fellow civilian astronauts who each represent something powerful.
Medical officer Hayley Arceneaux is a cancer survivor and, at 29, the youngest American to visit space. Engineer Christopher Sembroski is a US Air Force veteran, and Sian Proctor, a community college professor from Tempe, Arizona, is the fourth African American woman — ever — to live among the stars.
“It kills me to say that she is the fourth,” said Coleman, who has journeyed to the ISS three times over her career. “The fact that that number could be four, and not 40 or 400.”
Serendipitously, the SpaceX launch happened just in time for the release of a new documentary Coleman stars in, The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station. It’s available to watch on streaming services including Amazon Prime Video and iTunes.
The trailblazing mission, the intimate film and Coleman herself offer a special reminder.
Space belongs to all of us.
‘Maybe, that could be me’
Dressed in her iconic blue NASA uniform and sitting on a couch in front of a lovely, beige painting, Coleman overflows with empathy, thoughtfulness and nostalgia as she talks about her own experience becoming an astronaut and where space exploration stands today.
The 60-year-old veteran astronaut vividly recalls the first time it even occurred to her she could visit space.
It was when Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, came to speak at her college, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ride’s impact was so strong she may as well have spoken to Coleman directly.
“I remember the auditorium seat that I was sitting in,” Coleman said. “But mostly, I remember what it felt like to look at her, and listen to her talking, and realize that it was important that she was a scientist, and a well-trained one, and one that seemed to be continually curious.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, maybe that could be me.'”
Sure enough, Coleman went on to receive her degree in chemistry from MIT, became a member of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and complete a Ph.D. in polymer science and engineering from University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
In 1992, NASA selected her to join the agency.
Notably, one of her three missions to the ISS required her to live there for six months, longer than all of Ride’s missions, combined.
Today, a universal interest in space travel is heating up alongside the sudden streak of nontraditional astronauts launching into orbit. But we might stop to consider who is offering the person sitting in Coleman’s auditorium seat the same “aha” moment Ride delivered.
While Bezos and Branson demonstrated private organizations can, in fact, get to space, they’re both billionaires, they’re both men and neither is a minority.
Inspiration4 crew members tell a different story.
“When you think of the billions of people here on Earth, each of them could find something that makes them think ‘I see myself in them — just those four,'” Coleman says.
Space exploration and equal representation
“That a young girl or a minority could see themselves in space is really important to me,” Coleman says, speaking as a woman who says she experienced unfair scrutiny herself while training to become an astronaut. A common question was, “Did you even mind leaving your family behind on Earth?”
“Of course I did,” she said. “And at the same time, it’s actually a huge disservice to our guy astronauts who really minded as well.”
Fondly laughing about how her son sometimes called her while she trained in Russia and asked age-old questions like, “Mom, my black jeans, where are they?” Coleman stresses that being a mother didn’t encompass her whole identity — contrary to what the public was subtly fed about women astronauts.
In the 2000’s, for instance, she was asked to consult on a movie about the ISS, a film with a cast list that lacked any women or minorities.
“To me this was like an emergency,” Coleman said. “In the year 2000 or so, we’re going to have a film about what it’s like to live in space and in the cast, there’s not a single person that isn’t a white guy.”
“What about the 9-year-old girl who’s sitting at home watching this, thinking how cool it is — but inside there’s a little message saying, ‘By the way, this is probably not you,'” she remarked. In 2013, by contrast, Coleman coached Oscar winner Sandra Bullock to help her play the starring role of an astronaut in Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi film Gravity.
Or, take space suit sizes. At one point, Coleman explained, NASA didn’t have enough resources to make every size, so they eliminated small and extra large. They later restocked extra large suits — but not small. “It left out, actually, eight out of 20-something women that would not, then, on paper, fit in that spacesuit,” Coleman said. She was one of them.
The characteristic bulky white suits are required to keep astronauts alive outside the ISS, meaning those women were preemptively left out of the candidate pool for spacewalking.
Calling The Wonderful an exquisite movie due to its inclusion of international astronauts, men and women, Coleman suggests Inspiration4 leans into vital portrayals of diversity, too.
A next step for space travel, she says, is “finding a way to help the people who are designing and making spacesuits for the future understand that people like me bring a lot to spacewalking.”
I interpreted her use of spacesuits in the broadest, most metaphorical way.
Because commercial space travel is just beginning, humanity has an opportunity to get its nuances of equal representation right.
Today, Arceneaux, back from space, is the first person in history to travel there with a prosthesis. During training, she texted her orthopedic surgeon saying, it turns out the prosthetic device in her femur can withstand extreme force — evidenced by her flying a fighter jet.
The Earth is our ship. Space is our home
In April 2019, Coleman gave a Ted Talk: “What it’s like to live on the International Space Station.” It ended with the line, “The Earth is our ship. Space is our home.”
I get chills every time I think of it.
As humans, we tend to reject the idea of space. It’s hard to comprehend a place that’s measured in scales of billions and trillions and lives by physics we constrict to our textbooks — especially without conjuring a few existential questions for ourselves.
But like it or not, space is our home.
Married to artist Josh Simpson, who crafts glass art inspired by space and planets, Coleman smiles while remembering how while she was up in space, she wished he was there to look at Earth through her lens. That way, he could re-create it.
“When I look at my camera, I’m like, ‘Wow, it just doesn’t capture what it feels like to see that sunset,'” she said. “It’s kind of the same thing when you’re looking down at the Earth … at that curved edge. There’s just so many colors of blue — I can’t describe it.”
I’ve watched dozens of YouTube videos, trying to understand what the difference is. What, really, does the Earth look like from space without any particles blocking our vision, in a vacuum and with a background of nothingness?
I have to know.
But my failure to truly understand — and astronauts’ difficulty explaining the grandness of Earth from above — sheds light on another type of representation space travel could benefit from: diversity in thought. Artists, for instance, possess perspectives that scientists lack.
“Something that’s essential for our planet — especially right now — is to enable the problem solvers of the future,” Coleman says.
Inspiration4 is on track for that, too, in a way. Isaacman dedicated much of the mission’s publicity toward raising money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where Arceneaux used to be a patient and now works as a physician’s assistant.
“It’s not just a space mission. It’s an Earth mission,” Coleman said. “It’s a charity mission, it’s a mission for kids, and it’s a mission about more people going to space.”
“More ripples will happen from the events that they set into motion.”