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SpaceX launches Inspiration4 flight of all-civilian crew

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Four amateur astronauts lifted off from Kennedy Space Center here Wednesday evening, making history by becoming the first all-civilian crew to reach orbit in a fully commercial mission operated by Elon Musks SpaceX and paid for by a billionaire entrepreneur.

The launch, dubbed Inspiration4, was the first step in what is planned to be an audacious three-day journey in orbit around Earth by a group of people who just months ago didn't know each other and didn't expect to fly to space.

Just before launch, Jared Isaacman, the billionaire businessman who financed the trip and is its commander, urged action. "Inspiration4 is go for launch," he said. "Punch it, SpaceX."

The flight marks a new expansion in the growth of the commercial space industry and another leap forward by Musk's SpaceX, which has vowed to open the cosmos to ordinary people, not just professionals trained by the government, in a quest ultimately to land humans on Mars.

Civilians have in the past joined professional astronauts on trips to the International Space Station. And Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin are working to fly paying customers on suborbital flights that would touch the edge of space before falling back to Earth. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But never before has a crew made up entirely of civilians - two of whom won their seats through a competition and sweepstakes - reached orbit.

SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, pumps his fist as the Insiration 4 crew leaves the hanger on their way to launch on Sept. 15, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton

Isaacman, a 38-year-old father of two, made his fortune by founding Shift4 Payments, a payments processing company. He's an accomplished pilot who flies fighter jets in aerobatic competitions. He paid an undisclosed sum for the mission, though he told Axios it was less than $200 million, and turned it into a fundraiser for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

His first pick to accompany him on the flight was Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old from Memphis who works as a physician assistant. As a child, she was treated for bone cancer at St. Jude and made it her goal to work there and help others. As a result of her cancer, she had a rod placed in her leg, making her the first person with a prosthesis to go to space.

The other crew members, Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski, won their seats. Proctor, 51, a licensed pilot who is also an artist, poet and college professor from Phoenix, won a competition by using Shift4′s software to build an online store and create a video outlining her space dreams. In it Proctor, who was a finalist for the NASA astronaut program in 2009, read a poem calling for what she called a JEDI future, which she described as Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

In a briefing for reporters before the launch, she said she was honored to be the fourth African American woman to go to space and the first to serve as the pilot of a mission.

"It means that I have this opportunity to not only accomplish my dream, but also inspire the next generation of women of color and girls of color and really get them to think about reaching for the stars," she said.

Pictures is the SpaceX launch of the Inspiration4 crew manned by civilian astronauts, Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Hayley Arceneaux and Chris Sembroski on Sept. 15, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton

Sembroski, a 42-year-old father of two from Everett, Wash., won by donating to the St. Jude fundraiser. A friend of his was initially selected for the seat but backed out and offered it to Sembroski, who works at Lockheed Martin and served in the Air Force.

The Falcon 9 rocket that propelled the crew into space and the Crew Dragon spacecraft that will be their home until they splash down off the coast of Florida are owned and operated by SpaceX, not NASA. But the space agency has over the years invested heavily in the system, awarding SpaceX billions of dollars of contracts so the company could fly cargo and its astronauts to the station.

For this mission, however, NASA was merely a bystander.

The Falcon 9 lifted off at 8:02 p.m. from iconic pad 39A, which SpaceX leases from NASA and was host to the Apollo 11 moon launch as well as many space shuttle launches.

The rocket cackled and roared as it streaked through the darkening sky, reverberating across a Florida Space Coast that is witnessing a resurgence of launches, reminiscent of the early days of the space program, when astronauts including John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong took to the skies.

The crew of the Inspiration4 mission stands in stark contrast to those men - all White, all trained by the military and then chosen by NASA for their bravery and aptitude for the "right stuff."

Upon reaching orbit, Isaacman said, "The door is opening now, and it's pretty incredible."

The Inspiration4 crew looks more like a slice of America then those NASA pioneers, from different walks of life, of different ages and with different experiences, whose voyage to space was as much happenstance as design.

With this mission, SpaceX will be pushing the limits. The flight is scheduled to reach an altitude of about 360 miles, higher than the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope.

In a Netflix series documenting the mission, Isaacman and his team ask SpaceX about the feasibility of flying above the space station. An unnamed SpaceX employee responded by saying, "Intuitively going slightly above would not present a problem." But he added that it "will start to stretch our margins. And there may be other problems that I'm not aware of in other subsystems."

Another employee warned, "Yeah, it's not one particular thing, it's just opening Pandora's box."

At the preflight media briefing, Isaacman said he wanted the mission to push the envelope. "If we're going to go to the moon again, and we're going to go to Mars and beyond, we've got to get a little outside our comfort zone and take the next step in that direction," he said.

The SpaceX launch of the Inspiration4 crew took place Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton

Benji Reed, SpaceX's senior director of human spaceflight programs, said his engineers studied the flight trajectory, looked at risks such as micro-meteorites and debris and radiation exposure, and the amount of propellant on the spacecraft, and determined it was something they could do.

"Ultimately it's about safety and reliability," he said. While it is a different flight path from the ones it has been flying for NASA, "that's not to say that you can't go and do more, and you should go and do more when you can. . . . Certainly, Dragon is capable of doing it. We did all the risk analysis to make sure that we'd fly safely."

But the flight won't be easy.

Even professionally trained astronauts suffer from "space sickness" once they reach orbit, finding the weightless environment so disorienting many throw up. And while the crew has been trained in emergency procedures, it's not clear how they'll react if something goes wrong - whether they'll be cool in the moment, or panic.

Though the launch went well, the crew still has three days inside a cramped spacecraft, where they'll live, sleep and even go to the bathroom in proximity to each other. Then there's the return. To get home, the spacecraft will have to slam back through the atmosphere, generating extreme temperatures that will engulf the capsule in a fireball.

In an interview last year, Musk acknowledged the risks anytime you put people on top of a rocket loaded with thousands of gallons of highly combustible propellant.

"It's a scary thing to be launching people," he said. "We've done everything we can to make sure that the rocket is safe and the spacecraft is safe. But the risk is never zero when you're going 25 times the speed of sound, and you're circling the Earth every 90 minutes."

But if they are able to successfully complete the mission, it would go down as a historic flight and demonstrate that there is a growing business in space.

The flight precedes other planned private astronaut missions. Axiom Space, a Houston-based company is chartering flights for customers who are paying around $55 million for a little over a week on the space station. But on those missions, the private astronauts would be accompanied by a former NASA astronaut.

Ultimately, SpaceX and other companies hope the prices will come down and that space will be open not only to the super wealthy - or lucky. Isaacman said the Inspiration4 mission, then, is a first step in that direction.

"It's just getting started," he said. "This is just the beginning."

Published : September 16, 2021