I never thought I’d say this but – thank you, Elon Musk

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It has not always been easy to get behind the billionaires’ space race. Let them have their midlife crisis. Some of us have taxes to pay. If Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson want to get as far away from our planet as possible, at the greatest expense imaginable, well, good luck – and good riddance. You go on ahead, lads, we’ll be right behind you. It’s all just so embarrassing.

But then SpaceX, Musk’s space company, goes and does something really quite remarkable and you have to stand back and applaud, while picking crumbs of humble pie off your jersey. It sucks.

At 8pm last night in Florida (1am BST, Thursday), SpaceX successfully launched the first all-civilian crew into orbit. The four-person team, led by billionaire Jared Isaacman, will spend three days orbiting Earth at an altitude of 575km, which I’m told is 150km higher than the International Space Station. Not only that, but the crew will conduct health research during the trip to try and better understand how humans can survive in space.

The Inspiration4 mission is not, then, a pointless bit of willy waving. It could be a genuinely ground-breaking moment in human history. Why? Because the crew is not made up of professional astronauts. Two members of the team – Chris Sembroski, 42, a data engineer and Sian Proctor, 51, a community college educator – secured their spots via a sweepstake. Beats a dusty bottle of Babycham. Space travel suddenly seems a whole lot more accessible. Inspiration4 feels inclusive, as if we are all invested in its success.

As my colleagues Anthony Cuthbertson and Vishwam Sankaran explained: “If the mission is a success, it will mark a major step forward for space tourism, and for Elon Musk and SpaceX’s plans to make it accessible to anyone with the money to fund a rocket and spacecraft to carry them to orbit.”

Okay, so you could argue that the key phrase there is “anyone with the money” but today is not the day for cynicism. This mission very much feels like progress in the democratisation of space travel. And Nasa astronaut Shane Kimbrough agrees. “To me, the more people involved in it, whether private or government, the better,” he said from the International Space Station.

Space travel and tourism cannot become yet another thing from which the vast majority of us are excluded. Of course we aren’t all going to head off into orbit, but we need to feel that these missions are for the benefit of mankind. That they are research-led, not a game for the rich kids. Which is why we need less of Bezos and Branson in their shiny space suits and more missions like Inspiration4, which has helped to normalise the idea of space travel for all and should throw up a whole heap of interesting scientific analysis.

Elon Musk, man of the people. Never thought I’d write that. Funny old world.

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