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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