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SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission just opened a new era of private spaceflight

Inspiration4 may be over, but a number of other missions are poised to follow in its pioneering footsteps.

Inspiration4 sent four private citizens on a three-day trip around Earth aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, in the first-ever crewed orbital mission that didn't include any professional astronauts.

The landmark flight wrapped up Saturday (Sept. 18) with an ocean splashdown off the Florida coast. But we won't have to wait long for more commercial trips to Earth orbit like Inspiration4. They're coming thick and fast over the next few months, potentially paving the way for a substantial private presence in the final frontier.

"Congratulations #Inspiration4! Low-Earth orbit is now more accessible for more people to experience the wonders of space. We look forward to the future — one where @NASA is one of many customers in the commercial space market. Onward and upward!" NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said via Twitter on Wednesday (Sept. 15), just after Inspiration4 lifted off.

Video: Inspiration4's on-orbit tour of SpaceX Crew Dragon

The four private astronauts of SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission smile after returning to Earth on Sept. 18, 2021 to end their historic three-day spaceflight on a Dragon spacecraft. From left, they are: Hayley Arceneaux, Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski. (Image credit: John Kraus/Inspiration4)

Orbital space tourism, phase 2

Orbital space tourism existed before Inspiration4, which was booked, paid for and commanded by tech billionaire Jared Isaacman. From 2001 to 2009, seven people took eight trips to the International Space Station (ISS), getting to and from the orbiting outpost aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Those flights were brokered by Virginia-based company Space Adventures, and each put one paying customer on a Soyuz with two Russian cosmonauts. The private citizens spent about a week aboard the space station, then came back down to Earth.

No space tourist launched to orbit again until Inspiration4 took flight. But the gap this time will be measured in mere weeks rather than years.

On Oct. 5, for example, director Klim Shipenko and actor Yulia Peresild are scheduled to launch toward the ISS aboard a Soyuz that will be commanded by cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov. Once they get to the orbiting lab, Shipenko and Peresild will film scenes for a Russian movie called "The Challenge."

Russia's federal space agency, Roscosmos, is a partner on the film project, along with Russia's Channel One and the Moscow-based film studio Yellow, Black and White. So it's safe to assume that Shipenko and Peresild aren't footing the bill for their trip.

But another upcoming ISS visit fits the traditional space-tourism mold — that of billionaire businessman Yusaku Maezawa, who will ride a Soyuz to the orbiting lab this December on a trip brokered by Space Adventures. Maezawa will fly with video producer Yozo Hirano, who will document the experience, and cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin. 

Then, in January 2022, a SpaceX Crew Dragon is scheduled to carry three paying customers to the ISS on a mission organized by Houston company Axiom Space. Axiom hired former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría to command the mission, which is known as Ax-1.

Axiom also signed a deal with SpaceX for three additional such flights to the orbiting lab, which are expected to launch in the next two years. And two of those future missions will feature a crewmember chosen via a reality TV show contest — "Space Hero" in one case and Discovery Channel's "Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?" for the other.

That's just a partial list. Last year, for example, Space Adventures announced plans to fly four paying customers to Earth orbit on a Crew Dragon. That mission, which is broadly similar to Inspiration4, was said to be targeted for late 2021 or early 2022. The Virginia company is also offering two seats on an ISS-bound Soyuz in 2023 — and one of those two customers will get to make a spacewalk, the first ever performed by a private citizen.

And space tourism will soon go beyond Earth orbit, if all goes according to plan. Maezawa has booked a round-the-moon trip on Starship, SpaceX's new deep-space transportation system, which remains in development. Launch of that flight, which is called dearMoon, is targeted for 2023. 

Related: The first space tourists in photos

Suborbital, too

Suborbital space tourism is ramping up now as well. The two major players in that arena, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, both have crewed spaceflights under their belts now and are gearing up to begin regular commercial flights in in the coming months. 

You need pretty deep pockets to get to suborbital space. A seat aboard Virgin Galactic's six-passenger VSS Unity space plane currently sells for $450,000. Blue Origin has not yet revealed its ticket prices, but they're expected to be in the same general neighborhood, if not higher.

And getting to orbit is even more expensive. The folks who traveled to the ISS with Space Adventures reportedly paid between $20 million and $35 million for the experience, for example. SpaceX and Isaacman have not divulged how much the billionaire paid for Inspiration4, but it could be around $200 million, given that NASA pays about $55 million for each Crew Dragon seat on ISS missions. 

Those prices are likely to go down as more and more private missions like Inspiration4 get off the ground, but it's hard to imagine a precipitous drop anytime soon. So orbital space tourism will probably remain the exclusive province of the megarich, the well-connected and/or the extremely fortunate or charismatic (depending on how you want to characterize the reality TV winners) for a while to come.

That doesn't mean the coming boom is irrelevant to the masses, however; a sustained and meaningful rise in private space activity could well have impacts that trickle down to the rest of us. For instance, Axiom aims to operate a commercial space station in Earth orbit in the coming years. Perhaps a pharmaceutical company makes a breakthrough on a cancer drug during microgravity trials on that station. Or maybe Redwire subsidiary Made In Space uses the outpost to perfect the manufacture of the optical fiber ZBLAN, helping to increase connectivity here on Earth.

Making specific predictions is a fool's errand, of course. But generally speaking, increased commercial activity in the final frontier — provided it proceeds responsibly — should excite fans of space exploration and space development, because advances tend to build on each other. The more space-tourism money SpaceX can rake in, for example, the more resources it may be able to devote to getting Starship up and running. And Starship may be the vehicle that finally gets humanity to Mars.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall
SPACE.COM SENIOR SPACE WRITER — Michael has been writing for Space.com since 2010. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.