The first all-civilian crew to reach orbit in a fully commercial mission operated by Elon Musk's SpaceX and paid for by a billionaire entrepreneur took off from Kennedy Space Center here Wednesday evening, making history as the first all-civilian crew to reach orbit in a fully commercial mission operated by Elon Musk's SpaceX and paid for by a billionaire entrepreneur.
The launch, called Inspiration4, was the first step in a three-day voyage in orbit above Earth by a group of people who had just met a few months before and had never expected to fly to space.
Jared Isaacman, the millionaire businessman who financed the mission and served as its commander, urged action just before the launch. He stated, "Inspiration4 is go for launch," "Punch it, SpaceX."
The trip represents a new step forward in the private space business, as well as another step ahead for Musk's SpaceX, which has pledged to open the cosmos to ordinary people, not just government-trained specialists, in its goal to land humans on Mars.
Professional astronauts have already accompanied civilians on missions to the International Space Station. In addition, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin are developing suborbital flights that will take passengers to the edge of space before returning to Earth.
Never before has a crew made up entirely of citizens reached space, two of whom won their places through competition and sweepstakes.
Isaacman, a 38-year-old father of two, got his money as the founder of Shift4 Payments, a payments processing firm. He's a skilled pilot who competes in aerobatic competitions using combat jets. Axios paid an undisclosed fee for the mission, but it was less than $200 million and converted it into a fundraiser for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant from Memphis, was his first choice to join him on the flight. She was treated for bone cancer as a child at St. Jude and made it her life's mission to serve there and help others. She had a rod implanted in her leg due to her cancer, making her the first person to go to space wearing a prosthetic.
Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski, the two members of the crew, won their seats. Proctor, 51, a licensed pilot from Phoenix, an artist, poet, and college professor, won a competition by creating an online store and a film explaining her space goals using Shift4 software. Proctor, a finalist for the NASA astronaut program in 2009, recited a poem in which she called for a JEDI future, or Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
She claimed she was honored to be the fourth African American woman to go to space and the first to serve as the mission's pilot in a press conference before the launch.
"It means that I have this opportunity to not only accomplish my dream but also inspire the next generation of women of color and girls of color and get them to think about reaching for the stars," she explained.
Samborski, a 42-year-old father of two from Everett, Washington, won by giving to the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital campaign. Samborski, who worked at Lockheed Martin and served in the Air Force, was first chosen for the position but backed out, so it was presented to him by a friend.
SpaceX, not NASA, owns and operates the Falcon 9 rocket that launched the crew into space and the Crew Dragon spaceship that will be their home until they splash down off the coast of Florida. However, NASA has made significant investments in the system over the years, granting SpaceX billions of dollars in contracts to deliver cargo and astronauts to the station.
NASA, on the other hand, was a spectator on this expedition.
The Falcon 9 took off at 8:02 p.m. from famous pad 39A, which SpaceX leases from NASA and has hosted numerous space shuttle launches and the Apollo 11 lunar mission.
As it sped across the darkening sky, the rocket cackled and screamed, rippling throughout the Florida Space Coast, which is seeing a revival of launches, reminiscent of the early days of the space program, when astronauts like John Glenn, Alan Shepard, and Neil Armstrong ascended to the skies.
The crew of the Inspiration4 mission is a stark contrast to those men: all White, all military-trained, and then chosen by NASA for their bravery and talent for the "right stuff."
"The door is opening now, and it's pretty incredible," Isaacman said after reaching orbit.
The Inspiration4 crew appears to be more representative of America than those NASA pioneers, who came from various walks of life, were of different ages, and had multiple experiences. Whose journey to space was as much by chance as by design.
SpaceX will be pushing the envelope with this mission. The plane will fly at 360 miles, higher than the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope.
Isaacman and his colleague query SpaceX about the possibility of flying above the space station in a Netflix documentary about the project. "Intuitively going slightly above would not present a problem." said an unnamed SpaceX staffer. He did, however, warn that "will begin to push our margins. And there could be other issues in other subsystems that I'm not aware of."
"It's not one specific thing," another employee warned, "it's just opening Pandora's box."
Isaacman stated at the pre-flight media briefing that he intended the mission to test the boundaries. "If we're going to go to the moon again, and we're going to go to Mars and beyond, we've got to get a little outside our comfort zone and take the next step in that direction," he remarked.
SpaceX's senior director of human spaceflight projects, Benji Reed, said his engineers evaluated the flight trajectory, looked at dangers like micrometeorites and debris, radiation exposure, and the quantity of fuel on the spaceship, and found it was something they could do.
"Ultimately, it's about safety and reliability," he stated. It's a different flight route than the ones it's been taking for NASA, but it's a good one. "That isn't to say you can't go out and do more, and you should go out and do more when you get the opportunity. Dragon, without a doubt, is capable of completing the task. We conducted an extensive risk analysis to ensure that we would be able to travel safely."
The flight, however, will not be simple.
Even highly trained astronauts experience "space sickness" after they reach orbit, with the weightlessness of the environment causing them to vomit. While the crew has been educated in emergency protocols, it is unclear how they will react if something goes wrong, whether they will remain calm or panic.
Despite the launch's success, the crew will spend the next three days in a tiny spaceship, where they will live, sleep, and even go to the restroom close to one another. Then there's the journey back. The spacecraft will have to slam back through the atmosphere to return home, generating high temperatures that will engulf the capsule in flames.
Musk addressed the dangers of putting people on top of a rocket carrying thousands of gallons of highly flammable fuel in an interview last year.
He admitted, "It's a scary thing to be launching people," "We've done everything we can to ensure the safety of the rocket and the spacecraft. When you're traveling at 25 times the speed of sound and circling the Earth every 90 minutes, the risk is never zero."
However, if they complete the mission, it will go down in history as a momentous trip that proves a burgeoning economy in space.
Other private astronaut missions are planned after this flight. In Houston, Axiom Space is chartering flights for customers who will spend $55 million for a little more than a week on the space station. However, a former NASA astronaut would accompany the private crew on those missions.
In the end, SpaceX and other companies believe that prices will fall, making space accessible to everyone, not just the incredibly wealthy - or the lucky. According to Isaacman, the Inspiration4 mission is the first step in that direction.
"It's just getting started," he remarked. "This is just the beginning."