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Scott Manley remarked in a video, SpaceX's Latest Crew Mission Is Unlike Any Other:

[Inspiration4 is] billed as the first all civilian space flight – that's the sort of tagline and frankly it's not strictly correct in many many ways – I mean first of all lots of astronauts were civilians in that they had left the armed forces or never even joined the armed forces – but then you might argue that the spacecraft themselves[*] were you know, built by the government and therefore not civilian [...]

And sure enough Wikipedia's List of spaceflight records concurs with the media (as of 08:00, 16 September 2021):

First
All Civilian Space Flight
Inspiration4

In the formal definition of a civilian:

A person following the pursuits of civil life, especially one who is not an active member of the armed forces.

Was there an all-civilian space flight before Inspiration4?


* Re his last point, if speaking of an object, then it's privately vs. government/publicly funded.

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    $\begingroup$ I think this question is really a question of terminology. Do you define "civilian astronaut" as an astronaut who is not in the armed forces (Scott Manley's interpretation) or do you define "civilian astronaut" as an astronaut who is not a professional astronaut (everybody else's interpretation)? $\endgroup$ Sep 16, 2021 at 23:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Anton: I've used the formal definition in the question body. But even going by your latter definition, I remember reading that 2 of the 4 received training to fly the spacecraft, so maybe half-all-civilian? :-) $\endgroup$
    – ymb1
    Sep 17, 2021 at 1:36
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    $\begingroup$ Trained != professional. I may have gone to culinary school and use that training in my own kitchen, but that alone doesn't make me a professional cook. $\endgroup$ Sep 17, 2021 at 2:47
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds like the media is using "civilian" to mean some vague notion that they may not be very clear on themselves. Amateur? Non-pilot? First-timer? Paying passenger? Most strictly I think it means outside the armed forces (i.e., not subject to military chain of command) but it's widely used to mean not a police officer. Informally it's widely used where "lay person", "non-specialist", "amateur" or similar would be more precise. $\endgroup$
    – CCTO
    Sep 17, 2021 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ I guess "not paid by some government" might be a good definition of "civilian" here. $\endgroup$ Sep 17, 2021 at 16:24

3 Answers 3

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Privately-funded human orbital flight in singular spacecraft, no.
Civilian, yes.

According to Harvard University's Jonathan McDowell, there have previously been 15 all-civilian orbital flights, beginning with the Soyuz TMA-3 mission in 2003. The most recent civilian flight was SpaceX's Crew-2 mission. The definition of "civilian" is "a person not in the armed services."

Source: https://arstechnica.com/science/2021/09/four-private-citizens-launch-today-further-opening-new-era-of-spaceflight/

The McDowell post is here: https://mobile.twitter.com/planet4589/status/1436122397107707907

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The first space flight with an all-civilian crew was, depending on your definitions, either Joseph Walker's X-15 flight 77 (January 17, 1963), in which he exceeded the DOD's 50-mile (80 km) boundary, or flight 90 (July 19, 1963), when he flew to 106 km.

However, Inspiration4 is actually presenting itself as "the world's first all-civilian mission to orbit," which is a different matter entirely; X-15 didn't make orbital flights.

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    $\begingroup$ OM's answer disagrees with your last paragraph, nonetheless +1 for the rest. $\endgroup$
    – ymb1
    Sep 17, 2021 at 1:37
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    $\begingroup$ @ymb1 -- Not at all. I chose my wording carefully. $\endgroup$ Sep 17, 2021 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe there's a subtlety that I'm not seeing. Isn't Soyuz TMA-3 also an "all-civilian mission to orbit"? $\endgroup$
    – ymb1
    Sep 17, 2021 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure Joseph Walker's flights count. Sure, the pilot was a civilian, but the X-15 was military. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Sep 17, 2021 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ @ymb1 My last paragraph is making a factual statement about the contents of Inspiration4's web site, and nothing else. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2021 at 0:23
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It depends, and it depends on what you mean by "civilian" and "space".

Recently, Blue Origin made it above the Karman Line with an all-civilian crew, so there's a good argument to be made that this met the criteria of "all-civilian spaceflight", but it wasn't orbital.

If you're in the US, then NASA defines "space" as being a bit lower still at 50 miles, in which case there are even more all-civilian flights above this line. Again, though, not orbital.

On the "civilian" front, there's a question to be asked about if it means strictly in terms of the crew members or if it includes funding the vehicle itself, and how the astronauts are trained (eg if it's their day job and they're government trained, or if they normally do something else).

It's probably safe to say "Inspiration4 is the first wholly privately-funded orbital spaceflight where all the crew members are non-military and not professional astronauts".

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    $\begingroup$ Technically, the Blue Origin flight did have one NASA-trained pilot aboard, Wally Funk. I'm not sure how relevant her Mercury training in the 60's would be to a modern spacecraft, especially since she never actually went to space back then, but it's something. $\endgroup$ Sep 17, 2021 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman: Wally Funk was tested by the Lovelace Institute, not trained by NASA. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Sep 18, 2021 at 3:01
  • $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman: Wally Funk was a member of the "Mercury 13" which was a group of women tested to NASA's standards by a private organization to prove to NASA and Congress that women could be allowed to become astronauts. This is pretty much the opposite of "NASA-trained": a) she was only tested, not trained, and b) this program was specifically created because women weren't allowed to become astronauts, so it was "testing against NASA", if you will, not "by" NASA. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2021 at 11:41
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    $\begingroup$ "Inspiration4 is the first wholly privately-funded orbital spaceflight where all the crew members are non-military and not professional astronauts" – And even there, we are blurring the lines somewhat, because Chris Sembroski is retired Air Force and Dr. Sian Proctor is a 2009 NASA Astronaut Candidate Finalist (i.e. she was among the best ~50 of 3500 in the very last round of selections, but not among the final selectees). Also, they launched from a NASA-owned launchpad leased to SpaceX on a range operated by the Space Force, use the NASA TDRS network for comms, and development of Dragon … $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2021 at 11:45
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    $\begingroup$ … was significantly funded by NASA. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2021 at 11:45

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