With a billionaire’s backing, SpaceX sends citizen spacefliers into orbit for a mission like no other

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Florida and sends four citizens into orbit. (SpaceX via YouTube)

A tech billionaire and three other non-professional space travelers took off today to begin the first non-governmental philanthropic mission to take a crew into orbit.

Shift4 Payments founder and CEO Jared Isaacman is paying what is believed to be in excess of $ 100 million for what is expected to be a three-day flight in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

Isaacman organized the Inspiration4 mission with the help of SpaceX as benefit to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. The 38-year-old billionaire started the $ 200 million campaign with a pledge to donate $ 100 million the same.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:02 pm ET (5:02 pm PT). “Hit it, SpaceX!” Isaacman told mission control.

On the webcast, each phase of the ascent drew raucous cheers from hundreds of SpaceX employees who gathered at the company’s California headquarters. Nearly half a million viewers watched the broadcast coverage at its peak.

Minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s first stage reusable propellant flew back to a sea landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic, while the second stage pushed the Crew Dragon the rest of the way into orbit. .

After the Dragon reached orbit, Isaacman noted that he and his “fully civilian” crew had made their way into space through a metaphorical gate that relatively few humans had ever passed. “Many are about to follow,” said Isaacman, an amateur jet pilot who has been trained to take control of the Dragon if its autonomous navigation system fails. “The door is opening now, and it’s pretty amazing,”

Although the flight departed from NASA-owned property, the space agency has minimal involvement in this mission.

Instead of heading to the International Space Station, as all of SpaceX’s other manned flights have done, this Crew Dragon will chart an elliptical orbit that rises up to 357 miles (575 kilometers). That’s taller than the space station and taller than the Hubble Space Telescope. In fact, Inspiration4 will be the longest-flying manned mission since Hubble’s last servicing mission of the space shuttle fleet, which took place in 2009 when the space telescope was at a slightly higher altitude.

Previously: Why Inspiration4’s ‘totally civil’ journey to orbit represents the beginning of a second space age

The high-altitude itinerary is in line with SpaceX’s aspirations to go beyond Earth orbit, aspirations that Inspiration4 mission director Todd Ericson said were in line with Isaacman’s vision. “We want to start taking those first steps toward becoming an interplanetary species, which means we have to start working above low Earth orbit,” Ericson told GeekWire during a pre-launch interview.

For this trip, SpaceX developed a dome that takes the place of the Crew Dragon’s docking port and will provide a 360-degree view of the Earth below or the sky above.

Today’s launch marked the culmination of a process that began with a Super Bowl commercial and he continued with months of training for Isaacman and his three crewmates. The training included hours upon hours of studies and simulations, a zero-gravity airplane flight, a few spin sessions that induced nausea, high-G jet maneuvers, and a climbing trip to Mount Rainier in May.

Isaacman’s three crewmates were chosen in various ways. They include:

  • Hayley Arceneaux, a childhood cancer survivor who became a physician assistant at St. Jude. Hospital officials chose Arceneaux to fly at Isaacman’s invitation. She is the first person to go into space with a prosthesis, a titanium rod that was placed in her left leg during treatment for bone cancer. At the age of 29, Arceneaux is the youngest human to enter orbit and the youngest American to go into space. (Dutch student Oliver Daemen holds the world record for being the youngest in space thanks to July’s suborbital flight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft. He was 18 at the time.)
  • Sian Proctor, 51, an Arizona-based educator and artist endorsing Isaacman as a Crew Dragon pilot. That makes her the first black pilot on an orbital space mission. Proctor was chosen through an online competition for users of the Shift4 online payment system.
  • Chris Sembroski, 42, an Air Force veteran who lives in Everett, Washington, and works for Lockheed Martin as a data engineer. Sembroski has been a space buff since his youth and entered Inspiration4’s charity giveaway for fourth place in the mission. His ticket was not chosen, but the winner turned out to be a classmate from college. That friend decided not to go and chose Sembroski to fly instead.

Sembroski will be in charge of managing the payloads aboard the Crew Dragon, including medical experiments, items flown in space that will be auctioned for the benefit of St. Jude, and a ukulele that will play in space.

During the three days they are scheduled to go into orbit, the Inspiration4 quartet will monitor their radiation exposure, glucose levels and other health indicators. They will conduct a variety of educational and outreach activities, including classroom classes and contacts with cancer patients. But they will also have plenty of time to look at Earth through its custom-made dome.

“Of course I’m going to be looking down at my home in western Washington,” Sembroski said before takeoff. “I’m also looking to see what I don’t see, and it will be lines on a map or those walls that seem to separate us all.”

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