Four private citizens ride SpaceX rocket into orbit on historic mission

A Falcon 9 rocket streaks into orbit Wednesday night from Kennedy Space Center, kicking off the Inspiration4 mission. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

With the backing of a billionaire businessman, four private citizens blasted off Wednesday night from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a first-of-its-kind fully commercial three-day spaceflight aboard a SpaceX crew capsule, riding to an altitude higher than any person has flown in two decades.

The Inspiration4 mission includes a wealthy entrepreneur with a penchant for aerobatic flying, a science educator with a lifelong ambition to fly in space, a physician assistant who survived childhood cancer, and an Air Force veteran turned data engineer.

A Falcon 9 rocket lit up Florida’s Space Coast with a roaring liftoff from pad 39A at Kennedy at 8:02:56 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0002:56 GMT Thursday). The launch kicked off SpaceX’s fourth-ever crew mission to low Earth orbit, but the first without any NASA astronauts on-board.

Within about a minute, the 215-foot-tall (65-meter) Falcon 9 was traveling faster than the speed of sound, trailing a flickering orange flame as nine kerosene-fueled Merlin engines powered the launcher through a clear evening sky.

Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s reusable first stage booster shut down and dropped away to descend to landing on a SpaceX recovery ship positioned downrange in the Atlantic Ocean. Moments later, the second stage’s single engine ignited to send the Crew Dragon capsule into orbit.

SpaceX, founded and led by Elon Musk, hailed the mission as a turning point in the history of spaceflight. The Inspiration4 mission follows suborbital commercial launches space in July by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, space companies established by billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos.

Branson and Bezos flew on their own spaceships, but they barely scraped the boundary of space.

Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane reached an altitude of about 53 miles (86 kilometers), above the U.S. government’s definition of where space begins, giving Branson and his five crewmates a few minutes of weightlessness before returning to a runway landing in New Mexico.

Bezos launched to a higher altitude — 66 miles (107 kilometers) — above the internationally-recognized edge of space. Like Branson, Bezos and three other passengers floated in their New Shepard spacecraft for several minutes before Earth’s gravity pulled them back to the ground.

The Inspiration4 crew is commanded by billionaire businessman Jared Isaacman, 38, who paid SpaceX to charter the four-seat Crew Dragon spacecraft for three days in orbit. He’s joined by Sian Proctor, 51, a professor at an Arizona community college who serves as the mission’s pilot.

The other crew members are Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old data engineer from the Seattle area who works for Lockheed Martin.

The mission is fully automated, but the Inspiration4 crew — all new to spaceflight — trained for six months to prepare for living in space. The crew could intervene and execute emergency commands if something goes wrong during the flight.

Isaacman’s crew blazed through the 66-mile altitude reached by Bezos’s suborbital mission just three minutes after blastoff from Florida. They kept going.

The Falcon 9 rocket accelerated the Crew Dragon capsule to a speed of some 17,000 mph (27,400 kilometers per hour) to reach orbital velocity. That’s equivalent to traveling 5 miles every second.

That speed will keep the spacecraft in space for three days, when the Inspiration4 mission will come back to Earth. Weather permitting, splashdown off the coast of Florida is scheduled around 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT) Saturday.

“Few have come before, and many are about to follow,” Isaacman said moments after reaching orbit. “The door is opening now. It’s pretty incredible.”

Flying over the North Atlantic, the Crew Dragon capsule deployed from the Falcon 9’s upper stage about 12 minutes after liftoff. A few minutes later, the ship’s nose cone unlatched and opened, revealing a new three-layer plexiglass dome window, or cupola, flying in space for the first time on the Inspiration4 mission.

The cupola replaces the docking port used Dragon flights to the International Space Station. The Inspiration4 mission will travel solo, without linking up with the station, and the cupola will offer the Isaacman and crew panoramic views of the planet from space.

The crew will access the cupola by opening the spacecraft’s forward hatch.

A pair of post-launch “phasing” burns using the spacecraft’s Draco thrusters Wednesday night adjusted the ship’s orbit from an elongated shape to a more circular path around Earth. SpaceX said the orbit’s altitude is at 363 miles (585 kilometers), a record for a Dragon spacecraft.

Inspiration4 is orbiting above the altitude of the International Space Station, and higher than any humans have flown in some two decades, since a space shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Isaacman conceived of the Inspiration4 mission last year, in part, to raise money and awareness for St. Jude. An experienced civilian pilot in fighter jets, Isaacman established four pillars, or values, for the mission, with each seat representing one pillar.

“We set out from the start to deliver a very inspiring message about what can be done up in in space and the possibilities there, but also what we can accomplish here on Earth,” Isaacman said in a press conference before launch.

Isaacman said he chose four mission pillars — leadership, hope, prosperity, and generosity — “to assemble a very inspiring crew, who all have so many amazing qualities and contribute so many interesting firsts of this mission.

“And we also chose to do it through the largest fundraising effort in the history of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, acknowledging the real responsibilities we have here on Earth, in order to earn the right to make progress up in space,” said Isaacman, who took the commander’s seat on the mission to represent leadership.

Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman, and Hayley Arceneaux pose in their SpaceX pressure suits before launch Wednesday. Credit: Inspiration4 / John Kraus

Isaacman donated $100 million to St. Jude, and started a fundraising effort linked to the Inspiration4 mission to try to raise $100 million more.

Fewer than 600 people have flown in space, and most have been professional astronauts or cosmonauts employed by a government agency. A handful of “space tourists” have flown into orbit, but all launched on spacecraft commanded by a professional astronaut.

Arceneaux, who works at St. Jude, was selected as part of the mission’s “hope” pillar. As a child, she was a patient at the medical center after her diagnosis with bone cancer.

She became the youngest American to fly in orbit, and the first person with a prosthetic body part to go to space.

Proctor, the fourth Black woman to fly in space, was selected in a competition for the “prosperity” seat on Inspiration4. She used Shift4 Payments, a company bounded by Isaacman, to promote sales of her art and poetry, and submitted a Twitter video for consideration to be a part of the mission.

Sembroski entered a lottery for the “generosity” seat by donating to St. Jude. A college friend won the sweepstakes, but passed on the seat and offered it to Sembroski.

Former first lady Michelle Obama, who spoke with the Inspiration4 crew by phone earlier this week, tweeted Wednesday night that the crew is “inspiring us all with their courage, curiosity, and passion.”

“I’m thinking of all the young people who’ll be looking up to this crew and dreaming big thanks to them. Ad astra!”

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket climbs off pad 39A to begin the Inspiration4 mission. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX ended its live coverage of the Inspiration4 launch shortly after the mission reached orbit. The company plans no continuous video coverage of the flight, as NASA does with Dragon missions to the space station, but there are several live events in the flight plan, according to Scott “Kidd” Poteet, Inspiration4’s mission manager.

The in-flight events include a discussion with patients and staff at St. Jude, plus a few more “surprises,” Poteet told Spaceflight Now.

The mission schedule is planned to the minute, Poteet said. The crew will participate in several biomedical experiments before, during, and after their three-day spaceflight.

“I’m so excited about the medical research that we’re going to be doing on this flight,” Arceneaux said. “We’re going to be collecting a lot of swabs to learn about the microbiome, how that changes in flight. We’re going to be performing ultrasounds to evaluate for fluid shifts, as well as performing some cognitive tests, and studying radiation effects of going to our high altitude.”

The crew will also record personal messages for supporters and capture video for a Netflix documentary about the mission. Some of the footage will be debuted in a finale for the documentary miniseries to be released Sept. 30.

The capsule is carry personal mementos, plus up to 70 pounds of hops to be auctioned off to a brewery after the flight, with the money going to St. Jude.

The Crew Dragon will splash down at one of seven return zones off the coast of Florida, either in the Gulf of Mexico or off the Atlantic coast. SpaceX will establish a primary return area around 24 hours before the homecoming, based on forecasts of weather and sea conditions.

SpaceX’s recovery team will be on standby to pull the capsule from the ocean and help the crew exit the spacecraft. The crew members will fly back to Kennedy Space Center by helicopter.

The Inspiration4 mission is an all-commercial affair that leaves NASA largely on the sidelines. That’s just fine with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

“It’s another opening up of space,” Nelson said Tuesday during the Humans To Mars Summit. “In this particular one, other than the fact that the spacecraft, in this case the Dragon spacecraft, was built under the auspices of NASA because of the safety of astronauts. But other than that … This is SpaceX’s deal.

“NASA is not involved in it because this is a totally commercial operation of which they are not touching or, in this case, docking with the International Space Station,” Nelson said.

Private spaceflight will become the norm, if NASA gets its way. The space agency has turned over astronaut transportation to low Earth orbit to the private sector, through contracts with SpaceX and Boeing, and eventually wants a commercial space station to replace the International Space Station.

“It’s another example of where we’d like to go in low Earth orbit eventually,” Nelson said. “We want to keep the International Space Station going until 2030, and then we want to phase that out. We want commercial operations to take over low Earth orbit. We want them to do the manufacturing. We want them to have their own space station, so that NASA can continue to push outward into the solar system, and beyond.”

Under that scenario, NASA, international space agencies, companies, and private citizens would be able to purchase rides to a commercial space station. That frees governments from the cost burden of building and operating an orbiting complex, allowing NASA to spend its resources on deep space exploration, such as missions to the moon and Mars.

A NASA spokesperson said SpaceX is paying NASA around $1 million for limited support of the Inspiration4 mission.

The space agency’s support includes communications links with the Crew Dragon capsule through ground stations and NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, a network of satellites in geostationary orbit also used to communicate with the space station.

Before Inspiration4, SpaceX had launched four Crew Dragon missions to date, all under contract to NASA. Three of the previous missions carried astronauts to the space station.

NASA awarded $6.8 billion in contracts to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to complete development of new commercial crew capsules. SpaceX got $2.6 billion in government funding to design and build the human-rated Crew Dragon spacecraft, and Boeing received a similar $4.2 billion deal for its Starliner spacecraft.

Both programs ran into delays, but SpaceX launched its first astronaut mission for NASA in May 2020, ending a nearly nine-year gap in U.S. orbital crew launches since the retirement of the space shuttle.

Boeing’s Starliner program, on the other hand, still has not flown into space with a crew.

Isaacman said before launch that SpaceX’s track record and process “inspires a lot of confidence for us.”

“Any jitters are the good kind,” Arceneaux said. “I’m just so excited for tomorrow to get here.”

The Inspiration4 crew poses with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, moments before riding the elevator to board the Crew Dragon capsule Wednesday. Credit: Inspiration4 / John Kraus

Benji Reed, director of SpaceX’s human spaceflight programs, said the Inspiration4 crew completed “many months” and “hundreds of hours” of training at SpaceX locations across the country.

“They’ve been doing all kinds of training,” Reed said Tuesday. “They’ve studied over 90 different kinds of training guides and manuals and lessons to learn how to fly the fly the Dragon, and what to do in emergency situations. They’ve done their own kinds of preparations, a zero-G flight, they’ve climbed Mount Rainier together. And they’ve done a lot of jet fighter flights.”

SpaceX’s training included 12-hour and 30-hour simulations in a mock-up of a Crew Dragon spacecraft at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. The simulations, or sims, tested the crew’s response to emergencies and to living in isolation on the Dragon capsule.

“We’re happy to say that this crew and our operations team (are) ready and certified, and ready to fly,” Reed said.

Reed said SpaceX’s corporate mission to extend human life to other planets requires “putting millions of people in space one day.”

“So the long term vision is its spaceflight becomes airline-like, right?” he said. “You can buy a ticket, and you go. But right now, the appropriate thing is that we still train people significantly.”

SpaceX has other private crew missions on the books, beginning with the launch of another four-person team on a Dragon spacecraft in early 2022. On that mission, sponsored by the Houston-based company Axiom Space, the Dragon spacecraft will dock with the space station, and the private astronauts will spend about a week living and working there under an arrangement with NASA.

There are also more dedicated NASA flights with SpaceX’s fleet Crew Dragon capsules. SpaceX’s next NASA crew flight is set for launch Oct. 31 from Kennedy Space Center to kick off a six-month expedition to the space station.

“As we look for ways to evolve toward that airline-like model, we’ll look for how we can cut back on the amount of training that’s necessary to ensure safety,” Reed said.

“The reality is that the Dragon manifest is getting busier by the moment,” Reed said. “We’re gearing up to fly three, four, five, six times a year, at least.”

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