A SpaceX rocket ship blasted off from Florida on Wednesday, carrying a billionaire e-commerce executive and three less-wealthy private citizens he chose to join him in the first all-civilian crew ever launched on a flight to Earth orbit.
The quartet of amateur space travellers — led by the American founder of Shift4 Payments Inc, Jared Isaacman — left the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., just after 8 p.m. ET.
A SpaceX webcast of the launch showed Isaacman, 38, and his crewmates — Sian Proctor, 51, Hayley Arceneaux, 29, and Chris Sembroski, 42 — strapped into the pressurized cabin of their gleaming white Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, wearing their helmeted black-and-white flight suits.
The capsule roared into the Florida sky perched atop one of the company's reusable two-stage Falcon 9 rockets and fitted with a special observation dome in place of its usual docking hatch.
The flight, with no professional astronauts accompanying SpaceX's paying customers, is expected to last about three days, from liftoff to splashdown in the Atlantic.
It marked the debut flight of SpaceX owner Elon Musk's new orbital tourism business, and a leap ahead of competitors likewise offering rides on rocket ships to customers willing to pay a small fortune for the exhilaration — and bragging rights — of space flight.
Isaacman had forked over an undisclosed — but presumably hefty — sum to fellow billionaire and SpaceX owner Elon Musk to send himself and his three crewmates aloft. Time magazine has put the ticket price for all four seats at $200 million US.
The so-called Inspiration4 mission was conceived by Isaacman mainly to raise awareness and support for one of his favourite causes, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a leading pediatric cancer centre in Memphis, Tenn.
Inspiration4 is aiming for an orbital altitude of 575 kilometres above Earth, higher than the International Space Station or Hubble Space Telescope. At that height, the Crew Dragon will circle the globe once every 90 minutes at a speed of some 27,360 km/h, or roughly 22 times the speed of sound.
Why it's a bigger deal than Virgin Galactic's and Blue Origin's flights
Rival companies Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin inaugurated their own private-astronaut services this summer, with their respective founding executives, billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, each going along for the ride.
But those suborbital flights, lasting a matter of minutes, were short hops compared with Inspiration4's space flight profile.
SpaceX already ranks as the most well-established player in the burgeoning constellation of commercial rocket ventures, having launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA. Two of its Dragon capsules are docked there already.
Crew won't fly spacecraft, but will perform medical experiments
Despite some largely honorary titles, the Inspiration4 crew will have no part to play in flying the spacecraft, which will be operated by ground-based flight teams and onboard guidance systems, even though two crew members are licensed pilots.
Isaacman, who is rated to fly commercial and military jets, has assumed the role of mission "commander," while geoscientist Sian Proctor, 51, a former NASA astronaut candidate, has been designated as the mission "pilot."
Rounding out the crew are "chief medical officer" Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a bone cancer survivor turned St. Jude physicians' assistant, and mission "specialist" Chris Sembroski, 42, a U.S. Air Force veteran and aerospace data engineer.
The four crewmates have spent five months in rigorous preparations, including altitude fitness, centrifuge (G-force), microgravity and simulator training, emergency drills, classroom work and medical exams.
Inspiration4 officials stress that the mission is more than a joyride.
In orbit, the crew will perform a series of medical experiments with "potential applications for human health on Earth and during future space flights," the group said in a news statement.
Biomedical data and biological samples, including ultrasound scans, will also be collected from crew members before, during and after the flight.
"The crew of Inspiration4 is eager to use our mission to help make a better future for those who will launch in the years and decades to come," Isaacman said in a statement.
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