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SpaceX’s latest mission will launch four people into orbit

One is a 29-year-old medical assistant living in Memphis, a cancer survivor with metal rods in her left leg to replace bone destroyed by a tumor.

Another is a 51-year-old Phoenix community college professor who failed to fulfill her dream of becoming a NASA astronaut.

The third is a data engineer living in western Washington who was once a counselor at a camp that gave kids a taste of what it’s like to be an astronaut.

The fourth, 38, is a high school dropout who went on to become a billionaire and founder of a payment processing company. He’s the one who pays for a trip to space unlike anything we’ve seen before, where no one on board is a professional astronaut.

The crew of four are scheduled to travel to space together from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:02 p.m. EST on Wednesday in a SpaceX rocket. They will orbit the planet for three days at an altitude above that of the International Space Station.

The mission, known as Inspiration4, is also the first where the government is, by and large, a spectator. It’s also a lot more ambitious and risky than the few-minute jaunts to the edge of space performed by two super-rich business celebrities, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, in July.

The trip shows that a private citizen, at least someone with a few hundred million dollars and a few months to spare, is now able to essentially rent a spaceship to circle the planet.

In this case, it’s Jared Isaacman, founder of Shift4 Payments, a company that processes payments for restaurants and other businesses. His public profile is much lower than that of Mr. Branson or Mr. Bezos.

While the two have traveled in spaceships operated by companies they founded, Mr. Isaacman’s flight is handled by SpaceX, the private company run by Elon Musk, another billionaire whose company has turned the space industry upside down. over the past decade, realizing what competitors thought was infeasible while offering lower prices to access the space.

A trip like Inspiration4 is still only affordable for the richest of the rich. But it is no longer impossible.

In deciding to spend a significant portion of his fortune, Mr. Isaacman didn’t just want to bring a few friends. Instead, he opened up opportunities for three people he didn’t know.

The result is a mission with a team more representative of society at large: Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old medical assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old black community college teacher; and Christopher Sembroski, a 42-year-old data engineer.

“We have received the same training for all of these emergency procedures as any other NASA astronaut crew in the past,” Sembroski said in an interview last week. It was the last day he and his teammates spent at home before heading to Florida for the launch.

“I think we are more than ready to go into space,” Sembroski said.

The varied life stories of the Inspiration4 crew stand in stark contrast to Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos, whose excursions were seen by many as rides for billionaires.

“The world didn’t see how it was benefiting them,” Timiebi Aganaba, professor of space and society at Arizona State University, said of Mr. Branson and Mr.’s Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights. Bezos. “They were like, ‘This is just a playground for the rich.'”

With his team of all, Mr. Isaacman strives to achieve one goal of science fiction writers and space enthusiasts: to open space for everyone, not just professional astronauts and wealthy space tourists.

“The difference with this flight is that we have three very ordinary people who are basically on the flight, and they’re going to show us what it means to open this,” Dr Aganaba said.

Dr Proctor, who learned to fly airplanes as part of his efforts to become a NASA astronaut, has singled out Ms Arceneaux, a cancer survivor who will become the first person with a prosthesis to travel to space. This, she said, broadens the idea of ​​people who can be an astronaut.

“This is one of the reasons representation is important,” said Dr. Proctor, who will be the first black woman to serve as a spacecraft pilot. “And access matters. “

The mission also reflects the growing role of private enterprise in space.

“This represents part of the transition from low Earth orbit to private sector activities, which NASA has been promoting for several years,” said John M. Logsdon, founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George University. Washington. “Because it involves humans, it’s a great visibility. But in essence, it’s just part of a larger movement.

The mission uses the same Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule that SpaceX developed to take NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Indeed, the capsule that will send Mr. Isaacman and his teammates around the Earth is exactly the same, named Resilience, which was used for a NASA mission launched in November of last year. He then returned to Earth in May.

For Inspiration4, Mr. Isaacman named the four seats available in the spacecraft to represent the qualities he hoped the mission would represent: leadership, which was for him, and hope, generosity, and prosperity for his companions. of travel.

When he decided to use the trip to help raise funds for St. Jude, which provides free cancer care to children, he asked the hospital to suggest a frontline health worker to represent hope. Hospital officials introduced Ms. Arceneaux. The Generosity Seat, which went to Mr. Sembroski, raised funds for St. Jude through a raffle. Next, Mr. Isaacman’s Shift4 company held a competition to solicit entrepreneurial ideas, and Dr. Proctor won the Seat of Prosperity by setting up a store to sell space-themed artwork that she manufactures.

But she noted that Mr. Isaacman paid all the bills, including for a Super Bowl commercial in February that introduced the mission to Americans.

Mr. Isaacman declined to say how much he pays, only that it was less than the $ 200 million he hopes to raise for St. Jude.

“We are still a long way from the ordinary people who can go into space,” Dr Aganaba said.

The four have been in the public spotlight as they prepare for the flight, including in a Netflix documentary, a special issue of Time magazine and an Axios podcast.

In the Netflix documentary, Ms Arceneaux invited friends to watch the Super Bowl – a small gathering with a film crew. “I told my friends that I have a really big secret,” she said.

Her friends thought she was going to be a candidate for “The Bachelor”. When the Inspiration4 ad ran, “One of them said, jokingly, ‘Oh, are you going to space?’ And that’s when I said, ‘Yeah, I’m really going to space.’ “

In March, the four began intensive training, including swinging around a giant centrifuge in Pennsylvania to get used to the crushing forces experienced during launch and landing. They flew in a plane that simulates the experience of free fall.

They also spent 30 consecutive hours in a Crew Dragon simulator at SpaceX, working through contingency plans for a multitude of emergencies.

“When it started and throughout the case, time went by so quickly,” Mr. Isaacman said. “We were like, we’re going to do it again. “

They did it again, with another 10 hour simulation.

Ms. Arceneaux will act as the flight medical officer and research the crew during the flight. Dr. Proctor is to serve as a pilot, although the spacecraft largely flies itself. Mr. Sembroski, as Mission Specialist, will assume various responsibilities, while Mr. Isaacman will be the Squadron Commander.

It may well take years before another launch like Inspiration4. The cost of seeing Earth from orbit will remain well beyond the means of most people. And the business comes with high risks, with many observers citing the death of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who was aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it disintegrated when it launched in 1986. That’s far from it. be a commercial line flight and more like the orbital equivalent of climbing Mount Everest.

“I would say it’s not really a market,” said Roger D. Launius, a private space historian who previously worked at NASA and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “Basically it’s a joy ride that people are going to take once.”

Yet the fact that the opportunity is even available is a major change.

For decades, astronauts were typically government employees – people who worked for NASA or the Soviet space program who launched into rockets operated by their government.

During the Obama administration, NASA decided to hire private companies to build spacecraft for trips to the space station. He selected Boeing and SpaceX for the job.

Capitalizing on an earlier contract to send cargo to the space station, SpaceX had already captured a dominant share of the commercial satellite launch market with its Falcon 9 rocket.

NASA is hoping the federal investment in the Crew Dragon capsule can also stimulate a larger market for taking people to space. This path remains uncertain, however. For now, non-professional space travelers fall into two groups: people with a lot of money and people working in the entertainment industry.

A Houston company, Axiom Space, is slated to take off early next year, also using SpaceX’s Resilience capsule. The mission will take three people, paying $ 55 million each, for a multi-day visit to the International Space Station.

A Discovery Channel reality show contest, “Who Wants To Be An Astronaut?” is to offer a trip to the space station on a subsequent Axiom mission as a prize.

The Russian space agency has also resumed the sale of seats on its Soyuz rockets for trips to the space station. In October, a Russian actress, Yulia Peresild, and Klim Shipenko, a filmmaker, could go to the space station to shoot scenes for films. They could be followed months later by Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese fashion entrepreneur.

Mr. Maezawa’s 12-day trip will be a prelude to a more ambitious trip around the moon that he hopes to undertake in a few years aboard the giant SpaceX Starship rocket currently in development. This trip, named Dear Moon, will perhaps be the closest in the mind of Inspiration4. A competition to select eight people to go with him drew a million applicants, and Mr. Maezawa is currently sifting through the finalists.

Before the flight, the crew told a press conference Tuesday at SpaceX’s hangar at the Kennedy Space Center that they were confident and didn’t feel nervous before the launch.

“I’ve always been worried that this moment would never come in my life, so I’m good to go,” said Dr Proctor. “Let’s do it.”

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