SpaceX’s first private flight kicked off Wednesday evening with two contest winners, a healthcare worker and their wealthy sponsor, the most ambitious leap in space tourism to date. It was the first time that a rocket with an all-amateur crew flew towards orbit without professional astronauts.
The two men and two women of the Dragon capsule plan to spend three days orbiting the world from an unusually high orbit 160 kilometers higher than the International Space Station before splashing off the coast of Florida this weekend.
The flight is led by Jared Isaacman, 38, who made his fortune with a payment processing company he started as a teenager. It is the first contribution by SpaceX founder Elon Musk in the competition for dollars for space tourism. Isaacman is the third billionaire to launch this summer, following the brief space flights of Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos in July.
With Isaacman on the journey named Inspiration4, Hayley Arceneaux, 29, is a childhood cancer survivor who works as a medical assistant where she was treated at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Isaacman pledged 100 million out of pocket to the hospital and is asking for an additional 100 million donations.
Also included: competition winners Chris Sembroski, 42, a data engineer in Everett, Washington, and Sian Proctor, 51, an educator at a community college in Tempe, Arizona. Arceneaux becomes the youngest American woman in space and the first person in space with a prosthesis, a titanium rod in her left leg.
The recycled Falcon rocket rose from the same Kennedy Space Center pad used on the company’s three previous astronaut flights for NASA. But this time the Dragon capsule was aimed at an altitude of 575 kilometers, just behind the Hubble space telescope.
Your fully automatic capsule was already in orbit: it was used for SpaceX’s second astronaut flight for NASA to the space station. The only major change is the large arched window at the top instead of the space station’s usual docking mechanisms.
Isaacman, an accomplished pilot, convinced SpaceX to take the Dragon capsule higher than ever before. Initially cautious due to the increased radiation exposure and other risks, SpaceX agreed after a security review.
Now I just wish we’d get them to go higher, Isaacman told reporters the night before the flight. If we fly back to the moon and Mars and beyond, then we need to get a little out of our comfort zone and take the next step in that direction.
Isaacman, whose Shift4 Payments company is based in Allentown, Pa., Pays the entire bill for the flight but does not say how many millions he paid. He and others deny these high price tags that will ultimately bring costs down.
Yes, today you have to have a large amount of money and be willing to part with it to afford a trip into space, said Explorers Club President Richard Garriott, the son of a NASA astronaut who lived more than a decade ago the Russians paid for a trip to the space station. But that’s the only way we can lower the price and expand access, as was previously the case in other industries.
Although the capsule is automated, the four Dragon drivers trained for the flight for six months to deal with any emergency. That training included centrifuge and fighter jet flights, take-off and re-entry drills in SpaceX’s capsule simulator, and a grueling hike up Washington’s Mount Rainier in the snow.
Four hours before launch, the four four hours before launch came out of SpaceX’s huge rocket hangar, waving to their families and company employees, and kissing them before they were whisked into their sleek white flight suits. Once on the launch pad, they posed for photos and clenched their gloved fists before taking the elevator upstairs. Proctor was dancing as she made her way to the hatch.
Unlike NASA missions, the public will not be able to listen, let alone watch events unfold in real time. Arceneaux hopes to get in touch with St. Jude patients, but the conversation will not be broadcast live.
On SpaceX’s next private trip early next year, a retired NASA astronaut will accompany three wealthy business people on a week-long visit to the space station. The Russians are bringing an actress, a film director and a Japanese tycoon to the space station in the next few months.
Once against space tourism, NASA is now a supporter. The move from government astronauts to lay people is just amazing, said former NASA administrator Charles Bolden, a former space shuttle commander.
One day, NASA astronauts will be the exception, not the rule, said Mason Peck of Cornell University, an engineering professor who served as NASA’s chief technologist nearly a decade ago. But they will likely continue to be the trailblazers that the rest of us will follow.