Inspiration4 launch: SpaceX Crew Dragon blasts into orbit

First all-civilian crew takes off from the Kennedy Space Centre for three-day space flight

Four civilians became astronauts on Wednesday after reaching space on board a SpaceX rocket, in the most ambitious mission of a summer of space tourism.

The crew of Inspiration4 took off from the Kennedy Space Centre’s Launch Pad 39-A just after 8pm EDT, blasting through the night sky over Florida and into orbit on board a Falcon 9 rocket.

The mission is the first space flight with an all-civilian crew, who will spend three days orbiting the Earth before splashing back down off the coast of Florida.

The four-member mission also made history by adding to the total amount of humans in orbit.

There are now 14 people in orbit on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship, in the International Space Station and the China’s Tiangong station, beating the previous record of 13 people in orbit.

After a visit from SpaceX boss Elon Musk, the crew climbed into white Teslas to applause from a small crowd under sunny skies before boarding the autonomous Dragon spacecraft they will live in for the next three days.

"The Inspiration4 launch reminds us of what can be accomplished when we partner with private industry," tweeted Nasa administrator Bill Nelson before the launch.

Building up commercial capability has been the vision of Nasa's commercial crew programme since it began in 2011.

Nasa started experimenting with civilian spaceflight during the space shuttle missions in the 1980s, with Charles Walker, an engineer, becoming the first non-government person to fly into space in 1984.

Two more civilians, US Congressman Jake Garn and Senator Bill Nelson, the current Nasa administrator, followed in his footsteps.

But Nasa soon stopped sending civilians into space after the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986, which claimed the life of teacher Christa Macauliffe.

The Inspiration4 mission is being financed and led by Jared Isaacman, 38, the founder of Shift4 Payments.

Mr Isaacman, who founded the US payment processing company as a 16-year-old, is the latest billionaire entrepreneur to set his sights on the stars, after Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos both blasted into space this summer.

But Mr Isaacman, a skilled pilot who owns and flies a Russian MiG-29 jet fighter among other aircraft, hopes to outdo those space tourism pioneers with an even more ambitious mission.

Where Mr Branson and Mr Bezos made short, suborbital trips into space – both experienced only a few minutes of weightlessness before falling back to Earth – Mr Isaacman plans to use a SpaceX rocket to blast off on a mission lasting about three days.

He and the crew will orbit the Earth several times at an altitude of more than 550 kilometres – higher than the international space station or even the Hubble space telescope.

Leadership, hope, generosity and prosperity

The crew is meant to represent the main pillars of the mission: leadership, hope, generosity and prosperity.

Representing “hope” is doctor’s assistant Hayley Arceneaux, 29, who survived bone cancer as a child and will become the first person to go into space with a prosthesis.

Ms Arceneaux works at the St Jude Children's Research Hospital, where she was treated as a child. Mr Isaacman is using Inspiration4 to raise $200 million for the hospital.

Representing “generosity” is Chris Semborski, 41, a US air force veteran who now works in the aerospace industry.

Sian Proctor, 51, an entrepreneur, professor of geosciences and two-time Nasa astronaut candidate, symbolises “prosperity".

The launch live stream was part of the new docuseries Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, released this month, showing the rigorous training they went through in preparation for the flight.

The series was dismissed by some as being little more than a free advert for SpaceX, the commercial space company founded by billionaire Mr Musk.

Although Mr Musk has largely left his fellow billionaires Mr Branson and Mr Bezos to compete for the early milestones in the budding space tourism sector, Inspiration4 is one of several planned missions hoping to use SpaceX rockets to fulfil the dreams of Earth’s first true space tourists.

SpaceX and fellow private space company Axiom Space in June signed what the latter called a “blockbuster deal” to take tourists to the International Space Station.

SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk, left, announces Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, right, as the first private passenger on a trip around the moon, Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, in Hawthorne, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

The two companies had already agreed on a deal to send three private citizens and former Nasa astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria to the ISS in early 2022, and the new agreement expanded the plan to include four flights.

Nasa already uses SpaceX rockets to take astronauts to the ISS and has carried out three successful crewed missions.

SpaceX plans to use the Starship rocket it is currently developing to send a group of artists on a journey around the Moon in 2023.

Tourists travelled to space aboard Russian spacecraft several times between 2001 and 2009.

But unlike the Inspiration4 mission, they were always accompanied by professional astronauts.

Mr Isaacman hopes that Wednesday’s mission, with its civilian crew, will show that space – once the domain of highly trained, state-funded astronauts, scientists and engineers – is now accessible to all.

One slogan that featured heavily in the promotional material for the Netflix series was: “If they can go, we can all go.”

Updated: September 16th 2021, 4:11 AM
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