A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying four space tourists blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the first mission to orbit the globe with an all-civilian crew.

A huge fireball illuminated the sky as the rocket’s nine engines began to pull away from Earth at 8:02 pm (0002 GMT Thursday). Around 12 minutes later, the Dragon capsule separated from the rocket’s send stage as the crew entered orbit, while the re-usable first stage made its way back to Earth for a vertical landing on a sea barge.

The spaceship’s trajectory will take it to an altitude of 357 miles (575 kilometres), which is deeper into space than the International Space Station (ISS). After spending three days spinning around planet Earth, the four-person crew, all Americans, will splash down off the Florida coast.

The Four Spacemen

The four passengers are supposed to embody the opening-up of space to everyone, giving the mission its name: Inspiration4.

A billionaire, Jared Isaacman, is behind the  project. It was he who chartered the mission, at his own expense, inviting three anonymous people to join him, via a rather original selection process. Each seat has been assigned to represent a specific value.

The four people are:

Jared Isaacman
Jared Isaacman Photograph by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP

Jared Isaacman, billionaire pilot
Isaacman is the mission commander. The 38-year-old American is the founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, which offers stores and restaurants a service for processing bank card transactions. He created it when he was 16, from the basement of the family home.

Passionate about piloting, he holds a record for flying around the world in a light jet and is qualified to fly several military aircraft. In 2012, he founded a company providing training to US Air Force pilots, called Draken International.

A married father of two daughters, he has always been passionate about space exploration. In 2008, he witnessed the takeoff, aboard a Russian rocket in Kazakhstan, of one of the first private tourists to visit the International Space Station, Richard Garriott. It was after that experience that he contacted SpaceX.

His seat represents “leadership.”

Hayley Arceneaux, cancer survivor
Arceneaux was treated for bone cancer as a child at St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, for which Jared Isaacman organized a fundraiser. She works there today as a physician assistant. At 29, she will be the youngest American to be sent into orbit around the Earth, and the first person with a prosthesis to go into space.

She will be the medical manager for the mission. Her seat represents “hope.”

Sian Proctor, professor and astronaut candidate
Proctor, 51, teaches geology at a small college in Arizona. Born in Guam, her father worked at NASA during the Apollo missions. She participated in an experiment in Hawaii simulating life on Mars, and twice applied to NASA to become an astronaut. In 2009, she was among a few dozen finalists out of more than 3,500 candidates. She will be only the fourth African American woman to go into space. She will be the pilot of the mission, assisting the commander.

She won her seat, which represents “prosperity,” by creating an online sales site linked to space, as part of an entrepreneurial competition organised by Isaacman’s company.

Chris Sembroski, Air Force veteran
A 42-year-old US Air Force veteran who served in Iraq, Sembroski now works in the aeronautics industry, for Lockheed Martin in Washington state. He was selected after making a donation as part of a fundraiser for St. Jude’s Hospital.

His seat represents “generosity.” His role will be to help in managing the cargo on board, and communications with Earth.

 

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Tough Training

SpaceX, founded by billionaire Tesla owner Elon Musk, hasn’t disclosed what the trip cost Isaacman – but the price tag runs into the tens of millions of dollars.

Inspiration4’s crew leader is a high school dropout who went on to found Shift4 Payments, which provides payment processing services. His three crewmates were selected through a competition, and their stories have been followed in a Netflix documentary.

Former US first lady Michelle Obama congratulated the crew after lift-off.

The mission aims to raise US$200 million for St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, a leading facility in Tennessee. Arceneaux received treatment there as a child, and now works there.

The crew were set to take with them various objects – a ukulele, hops intended to brew space beer and several digital assets known as non-fungible tokens – that will be auctioned off for the cause.

Throughout the flight, biological data including heart rate and sleep, as well as their cognitive capacities, will be analysed to study the health impacts of space.

The Dragon capsule is equipped, for the first time, with a cupola observation dome (the largest ever space window) to take in the view. The dome replaces the usual mechanism used on Dragons to dock with the ISS.

Privatisation of Space

Beyond the mission’s charitable and scientific aspects, its stated goal is to prove that the cosmos is accessible to people who have not been handpicked and trained for years as astronauts.

The flight should remain fully automated, but the crew members have been trained by SpaceX to be able to take control in the event of an emergency. The space adventure bookends a summer marked by the battle of the billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos to reach the final frontier.

Branson, the Virgin Galactic founder, achieved the feat first, on July 11, and was followed by the Blue Origin boss nine days later. But these flights only offered a few minutes of weightlessness.

This is the fourth crewed mission for SpaceX, which has now sent 10 astronauts to the ISS for NASA.

 

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This article was published via AFP Relaxnews.

(Featured image: Photo by Chandan Khanna / AFP; Hero image: Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

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