With a Billionaire’s Backing, SpaceX Sends Citizen Spacefliers Into Orbit for a Mission Like No Other
A tech billionaire and three other non-professional spacefliers blasted off today to begin the first non-governmental, philanthropic mission carrying a crew to orbit.
The founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, Jared Isaacman, is paying what's thought to be in excess of $100 million for what's expected to be a three-day flight in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
Isaacman organized the Inspiration4 mission with SpaceX's help as a benefit for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. The 38-year-old billionaire kicked off the $200 million campaign with a commitment to donate $100 million himself.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:02 p.m. ET (5:02 p.m. PT). "Punch it, SpaceX!" Isaacman told mission control.
On the webcast, every phase of the ascent drew raucous cheers from hundreds of SpaceX employees who gathered at the company's headquarters in California. Nearly half a million viewers watched the streaming coverage at its peak.
Minutes after liftoff, the rocket's reusable first-stage booster flew itself back to an at-sea landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic, while the second stage pushed the Crew Dragon the rest of the way to orbit.
After the Dragon reached orbit, Isaacman noted that he and his "all-civilian" crew had wedged their way to space through a metaphorical door that relatively few humans have gone through. "Many are about to follow," said Isaacman, an amateur jet pilot who's been trained to take control of the Dragon if its autonomous navigation system fails. "The door is opening now, and it's pretty incredible."
Although the flight started out from NASA-owned property, the space agency has minimal involvement in this mission.
Instead of heading for the International Space Station, as all of SpaceX's other crewed flights have done, this Crew Dragon will trace an orbit that rises as high as 363 miles (585 kilometers). That's higher than the space station, and higher than the Hubble Space Telescope. In fact, Inspiration4 will be humanity's highest-flying space trip since the space shuttle fleet's Hubble missions, which took place when the space telescope was at a slightly loftier altitude.
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 view. "We want to start taking those first steps out toward becoming an interplanetary species, which means we've got to start working our way above low Earth orbit," Ericson told GeekWire during a pre-launch interview.
For this trip, SpaceX developed a cupola that's taking the place of the Crew Dragon's docking port and will provide a 360-degree view of Earth below or the sky above.
Today's launch marked the culmination of a process that began with a Super Bowl commercial and 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, some nausea-inducing centrifuge sessions, high-G jet maneuvers and a climbing trip to Mount Rainier in May.
Isaacman's three crewmates were chosen in a variety of ways. They include:
- Hayley Arceneaux, a survivor of childhood cancer who became a physician assistant at St. Jude. Hospital officials chose Arceneaux to fly at Isaacman's invitation. She's the first person to go into space with a prosthesis — a titanium rod that was put in her left leg during treatment for bone cancer. At the age of 29, Arceneaux is the youngest human to go into orbit and the youngest American to go into space. (Dutch student Oliver Daemen holds the world record for youngest in space by virtue of July's suborbital flight on Blue Origin's New Shepard spaceship. He was 18 at the time.)
- Sian Proctor, 51, an Arizona-based educator and artist who's backing up Isaacman as the Crew Dragon's pilot. That makes her the first Black female pilot on an orbital space mission. Proctor was chosen through an online competition for users of Shift4's online payment system.
- Chris Sembroski, 42, an Air Force veteran who lives in Everett, Wash., and works for Lockheed Martin as a data engineer. Sembroski has been a space buff since his youth, and entered Inspiration4's charity sweepstakes for the fourth spot on the mission. His ticket wasn't picked, but the winner turned out to be a college buddy of his. That buddy decided not to go and picked Sembroski to fly instead.
Sembroski will be in charge of managing the payloads aboard the Crew Dragon — including medical experiments, flown-in-space items that will be auctioned off to benefit St. Jude, and a ukulele that he'll play in space.
During the three days that they're scheduled to spend in orbit, the Inspiration4 foursome will monitor their radiation exposure, glucose levels and other health indicators. They'll conduct a variety of educational and outreach activities, including schoolroom classes and contacts with cancer patients. But they'll also have plenty of time to look out at Earth through their custom-made cupola.
"Of course I'm going to be looking down at my home in Western Washington," Sembroski said before liftoff. "I'm also looking to see what I don't see — and that's going to be lines on a map or those walls that seem to separate all of us."
This story originally appeared on GeekWire.
SpaceX's first all-civilian flight to space will take place this week in what is sure to be a taste of what commercial space flight could look like.
The Inspiration4 mission is scheduled for Sept. 15. The Crew Dragon carrying the Inspiration4 passengers will lift off from Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The mission –an estimated $200 million price tag– is funded entirely by Jared Isaacman, the 38-year-old billionaire CEO of financial tech company Shift4 Payments.
Isaacman will act as the mission commander alongside three other newbie space explorers, including 29-year-old Hayley Arceneaux, a bone cancer survivor who works for St. Jude and will be the youngest person in space following this flight; 41-year-old Air Force veteran and St. Jude supporter Chris Sembroski; and Dr. Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old space educator and trained pilot who will serve as the lead pilot on the mission.
Each member of the rookie astronaut crew was selected in a donation-based sweepstakes that aimed to raise $200 million for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital – $100 million of which is directly from Isaacman. SpaceX stated the mission aims to "inspire support for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and send a humanitarian message of possibility while representing a new era for human spaceflight and exploration."
Inspiration4 astronauts Chris Sembroski, Dr. Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman and Hayley Arceneaux.Image from inspiration4.com
The exact liftoff time isn't determined yet, but the launch is expected to happen no later than 8:02 p.m. EST Wednesday night.
SpaceX will post updates on its Twitter account, and live stream the launch on its YouTube page and website. Florida local news channel 10 Tampa Bay will also live stream its coverage of the launch on Facebook. Netflix will broadcast its own live stream on its app and YouTube page, and that 90-minute live coverage will begin at 5 p.m. PST tomorrow.
Inspiration4 will also carry beer -- but not for getting tanked in orbit. Isaacman decided to bring 70 pounds of hops on the shuttle, and they'll be auctioned off to a brewery to turn it into "space beer." The proceeds from the auction will also benefit St. Jude.
SpaceX turned heads when it announced the mission with a glossy Super Bowl ad earlier this year and since then four citizen astronauts have been undergoing intense training -- some of which is documented in a new Netflix series directed by Jason Hehir. In case that isn't a close enough look for hardcore space fans, Spacex is selling a "Feel the Heat" package for $250 each that gets onlookers as close to the launch pad as safety rules allow, just under four miles away.
Unlike past flights by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, this flight will linger in space for several days before touching back down, giving the passengers a chance to immerse themselves in intergalactic living. SpaceX modified its FAA-approved rocket to give the crew a better view of the cosmos by replacing the docking port with a 360-degree glass dome that will be the largest space window on a craft.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the first name of astronaut Jared Isaacman.
Elon Musk's SpaceX is promising to launch four civilians into orbit by next year, an ambitious goal that would mark the first commercial crew launch if completed successfully.
Billionaire Jared Isaacman, CEO of Pennsylvania-based payment technology firm Shift4 Payments Inc., is financing the trip, chartering the Dragon rocket and donating three seats. The remaining three people joining Isaacman will be announced in coming weeks, SpaceX said Monday.
The launch is nicknamed Inspiration4 and is a charitable effort to raise money for St. Jude's Children's Hospital. Isaacman said he will give two of the seats to St. Jude including an "ambassador with direct ties to the mission" from the hospital.
There isn't a clear destination for the trip; SpaceX has just said it will launch into low earth orbit and remain there for several days. Musk definitely has his sights on interplanetary travel, though; he's been open about lofty desires to get people to Mars by 2026.
The Hawthorne-based aerospace firm is targeting "no earlier than the fourth quarter of this year" to send private citizens into space from its outpost at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
To be considered for one of the remaining two seats, passengers must either donate to St. Jude's or open a business profile with Shift4 Payments' ecommerce site and share their entrepreneurial story to a panel of celebrity judges, who will decide the winner. Official crew selection will happen Feb. 28, according to the mission's website.
"Inspiration4 is the realization of a lifelong dream and a step towards a future in which anyone can venture out and explore the stars," Isaacman said in a statement. "I appreciate the tremendous responsibility that comes with commanding this mission and I want to use this historic moment to inspire humanity while helping to tackle childhood cancer here on Earth."
SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 rockets are designed for industrial missions -- like launching satellites or carrying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. In May, the Crew Dragon flew a crew to the ISS from U.S. soil for the first time since 2011. The spaceship will now also be used for commercial trips.
"The Inspiration4 crew will receive commercial astronaut training by SpaceX on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft, orbital mechanics, operating in microgravity, zero gravity and other forms of stress testing," SpaceX stated, adding that the crew members will also be trained to handle outer space emergencies, entering and exiting the spacecraft, and be given mission simulations prior to going to space.
It's unclear how much each seat on the Inspiration4 mission cost Isaacman, but the cost of a non-NASA seat aboard the Crew Dragon is estimated to cost somewhere in the ballpark of $55 million.Boeing is also working on similar technology -- in 2014 Boeing and SpaceX began working to develop independent space taxis with a shared $6.8 billion grant from NASA. SpaceX and Boeing have both developed crew capsules and Boeing's first crewed Starliner rocket launch is expected later this year. Though both companies' commercial crew projects were funded by the government, they are free to also launch private missions.
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