SpaceX rocket rolls out to pad 39A for Inspiration4 launch

Chris Sembroski, Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, and Sian Proctor pose with the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule that will carry them into orbit. Credit: Inspiration4 / John Kraus

SpaceX raised a Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule on pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Sunday, kicking off a busy few days before launch of the all-private Inspiration4 crew mission as soon as Wednesday night.

The Falcon 9 launcher rolled out of SpaceX’s hangar at the southern perimeter of pad 39A late Saturday. The rocket rode a transporter up the ramp to the historic seaside launch facility, where a hydraulic lift raised the 215-foot-tall (65-meter) launcher vertical just before 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) Sunday.

The rollout was to be followed by a dress rehearsal Sunday evening with the four private citizens who will ride the Falcon 9 into orbit this week.

The Inspiration4 mission is set to become the first human spaceflight to reach orbit with a crew comprised entirely of private citizens. Every crew to fly in Earth orbit to date has been led by a government-employed astronaut.

In July, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin — founded by billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos — launched all-private crews into space on their own commercial spaceships. But those suborbital missions only reached the edge of space, giving the passengers a few minutes of microgravity and offering brief views of Earth from an altitude of more than 50 miles (80 kilometers).

SpaceX is set to launch the Inspiration4 crew members to an altitude of roughly 357 miles (575 kilometers) on a three-day flight, during which the Crew Dragon capsule will circle Earth dozens of times before re-entering the atmosphere for a parachute-assisted splashdown off the coast of Florida.

It will be just the fourth flight of a Crew Dragon capsule with people on-board, following three launches that carried NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

The Inspiration4 mission will not dock with the station, but will orbit solo. SpaceX replaced the docking port on the Crew Dragon capsule with a glass dome designed to give the crew members panoramic views of Earth and space as the ship speeds around the planet at more than 17,000 mph.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft, with the Inspiration4 logo. Credit: SpaceX

The crew is led by Jared Isaacman, 38, a billionaire entrepreneur who founded the online payment processing company Shift4 Payments.

Isaacman is a civilian pilot with experience flying high-performance fighter jets. He is paying for the mission — SpaceX charges about $50 million per seat — and will command the Inspiration4 flight on the Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft.

The Crew Dragon Resilience capsule is set for launch on its second flight into space, following a six-month stint on the space station. The spacecraft returned to Earth in May with two three NASA astronauts and a Japanese flight engineer.

SpaceX’s crew capsule is fully automated, with the crew available to intervene in the operation of the capsule only in emergencies.

The Inspiration4 mission is the centerpiece of a charity-focused project designed in part to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a nonprofit institution devoted to treating children with cancer and other pediatric diseases.

The commander will be joined on the mission by Sian Proctor, 51, a private pilot and science educator with a master’s degree in geology, Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude, and Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old data engineer from the Seattle area.

Proctor and Sembroski got their seats through a competition and a lottery. Arceneaux, a survivor of childhood cancer, was named to the crew to represent “hope.”

The Inspiration4 crew members have trained in a simulator at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, flown in fighter jets, and taken a flight on a zero-gravity training aircraft to provide a taste of what they will experience in orbit.

Isaacman, Proctor, Arceneaux, and Sembroski flew to Kennedy Space Center last week to begin final launch preps.

On Sunday evening, Isaacman and his crewmates are scheduled to participate in a “dry dress rehearsal” with SpaceX, practicing each step they will take on launch day.

The four crew members will depart from SpaceX’s Hangar X facility at Kennedy Space Center and ride in Tesla Model X automobiles to pad 39A, where SpaceX has outfitted a room where private crews like Inspiration4 will put on their spacesuits.

The Inspiration4 crew will don their flight suits, run through air pressure checks, then complete the journey to the launch mount, where they will ride an elevator up the pad tower. Once at 265-foot level, Isaacman and his crewmates will walk across the access arm leading to the Crew Dragon hatch.

SpaceX personnel will assist the crew in boarding the capsule and taking their seats, then the private astronauts will exit the spaceship to complete the dress rehearsal.

A twice-flown first stage booster will launch the Inspiration4 mission. Credit: SpaceX

Once the crew departs the pad Sunday night, SpaceX will begin preparations for a test-firing of the Falcon 9 rocket’s nine main engines early Monday.

The static fire test, expected to occur before dawn Monday, will begin with loading of the two-stage rocket with kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants. After a simulated countdown, the rocket’s first stage engines will ignite for several seconds, putting out 1.7 million pounds of thrust while hold-down clamps keep the Falcon 9 firmly on the ground.

SpaceX will drain propellants from the rocket after the static fire, while engineers look over data to verify all systems are ready for launch.

Assuming everything looks good, SpaceX is expected to give a “go” for launch during a final readiness review.

Officials have narrowed the launch time to a 12-hour window opening at 8 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0000 GMT Thursday), 24 hours later than originally announced.

SpaceX and Inspiration4 managers are expected to shorten the window to a five-hour duration late Sunday or early Monday.

With no mission-related constraints to the launch time, such as a rendezvous with the space station, officials are closely watching weather to gauge when is the best time to target liftoff.

The first official launch weather forecast issued Sunday by the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicts a 70% chance of acceptable conditions during the 12-hour window.

Forecasters are monitoring tropical waves that could move over Florida’s Space Coast this week.

“There is a moderate chance one of these stronger waves will develop a circulation center on the next few days, which could bring added moisture and shower activity to the spaceport and eventually into the ascent corridor,” the forecast team wrote Sunday. ‘The primary launch weather concerns are the thick cloud layer rule (and) flight through precipitation.”

The probability of acceptable launch weather does not factor in other rules, such as a limit on the speed of onshore winds that could blow the Crew Dragon capsule back onto land in the event of an emergency escape maneuver before or just after liftoff.

The weather squadron says there is a “moderate” risk that onshore winds could be a problem for a launch attempt Wednesday night or Thursday morning.

SpaceX will also be watching sea and wind conditions along the Falcon 9 rocket’s flight path northeast from Kennedy Space Center. Those conditions must be acceptable for rescue teams to recover the Crew Dragon capsule in the event of an in-flight abort.

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