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Inspiration4 'all-civilian' crew launches on Earth orbit mission

September 15, 2021

— The first space mission to be crewed by all amateur astronauts is now underway, orbiting high above Earth with the goal of inspiring the world below.

Inspiration4 lifted off on Wednesday (Sept. 15) with billionaire Jared Isaacman commanding a crew of three, including medical officer Hayley Arceneaux, a cancer survivor and physician's assistant; pilot Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and science communicator; and mission specialist Chris Sembroski, a data engineer. Dubbed the first "all-civilian" crew, the planned three-day mission is being entirely funded by Isaacman, with Sembroski and Proctor selected through competitions and Arceneaux representing her employer and the flight's benefactor, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

"We set out from the start to deliver a very inspiring message, certainly what can be done up in space and the possibilities there, but also what we can accomplish here on Earth," said Isaacman during a pre-launch press conference on Tuesday. "We chose to do that through an interesting crew selection process, which I feel ... assembled a very inspiring crew who all have so amazing qualities and contribute so many interesting firsts to this mission."

"We also chose to do it through the largest fundraising effort in the history of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, acknowledging the real responsibilities we have here on Earth to earn the right to make progress up in space," he said. The mission aims to raise $200 million for the hospital's pediatric cancer research, with Isaacman donating the first $100 million.

The Inspiration4 crew launched aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 8:02 p.m. EDT (0002 GMT Sept. 16) from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Falcon 9 first stage booster had previously been used to launch two GPS satellites and landed successfully on a drone ship on Wednesday. The Dragon "Resilience" was earlier flown by NASA astronauts on SpaceX's Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station.

Inspiration4 launch. Click to enlarge and view video in a new, pop-up window. (SpaceX)

Unlike prior Dragon missions, which have flown to the International Space Station 260 miles (420 km) above the planet, the Inspiration4 capsule was inserted into an orbit with an apogee of 360 miles (575 km); higher than the current altitude of the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA astronauts last serviced the Hubble in 2009. Only two Gemini crews and the 24 moon-bound Apollo astronauts have flown significantly higher.

"I just wish we pushed [them] to go higher," said Isaacman. "We've been going to the space station for some time and there is just unbelievable science and research and great contributions that are coming out of there, but if we're going to go to the moon again and we're going to go to Mars and beyond, we have to go a little outside of our comfort zone and take that next step in that direction.

During their three days on orbit, the crew plans to gather medical data in a first-of-its-kind research initiative with the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine and investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine.

"We're going to be collecting a lot of swabs to learn about the microbiome, how that changes in flight," said Arceneaux. "We're going to be performing ultrasounds to evaluate for fluid shifts, as well as performance and cognitive tests and studying the radiation effects of going to our high altitude."

The crew will also enjoy an unprecedented view of space and the planet below using a new feature of the Crew Dragon, developed for this mission. Since Inspiration4 will not be docking with the space station, the company removed the capsule's latching mechanisms and replaced them with an observation dome.

Described as the largest continuous window ever sent into space, the cupola is also equipped with an exterior mounted camera so the crew can take photos of themselves looking out into space.

The remainder of the crew's time will be spent adjusting to living in microgravity, experiencing what it is like to be an astronaut; recording and downlinking video for an ongoing TIME and Netflix documentary; and photographing and interacting with memorabilia they are flying on the mission to raise funds for St. Jude's.

"I am very excited that I'll be able to try my hand at playing some music on the ukulele up in space, so I apologize for any ears that are listening intently, but I'll give it my best shot," said Sembroski. "I do know the acoustics are pretty good on Dragon so it'll come through."

Each of the crew members were selected to represent a pillar of the mission's overall message of inspiration.

Isaacman, 38, is the founder and chief executive of Shift4 Payments, a payment processing company based in Pennsylvania. A fighter jet pilot who has performed in airshows, Isaacman set a world record for circumnavigating the globe in 2009. As commander of the Inspiration4 mission, he represents "Leadership."

Proctor, 51, fills the "Prosperity" seat. She won her place on the mission by establishing a Shift4Shop online store for her Afrofuturism art, which she uses to promote a "J.E.D.I. space" — a Just, Equitable, Diverse, and Inclusive space.

Only the fourth Black woman to fly into space, Proctor was born in Guam where her father worked at a NASA tracking station receiving data from the experiments deployed by the Apollo astronauts on the moon. She previously participated in four analog space missions, including a NASA-funded four-month "Mars mission," and was a finalist for the 2009 astronaut class.

"There have been three black female astronauts that have made it to space, and knowing that I'm going to be the fourth 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, and what that means," said Proctor.

After being donated the "Hope" seat, St. Jude's chose Arceneaux from its staff to represent the hospital on the mission. At 29 years old, she is the youngest American to enter space and as a pediatric bone cancer survivor who was treated at St. Jude's, she is the first person with a prosthetic body part (metal rods in her left leg) to become an astronaut.

Though Sembroski, 42, entered St. Jude's raffle for the "Generosity" seat, he did not win. Rather, a friend of his did, who then chose Sembroski to fly on his behalf. A data engineer with Lockheed Martin, Sembroski is a U.S. Air Force veteran and previously served as a counselor at U.S. Space Camp.

With their launch on Wednesday, the four Inspiration4 crew members helped set a new record for the most people in space at one time. With the seven people on the International Space Station and three on China's space station, as of Wednesday there were 14 humans off the planet, one more than the previous complement set in 1995 and tied in 2009.

The Inspiration4 mission also marks the first U.S. Earth orbital mission without a destination since the ill-fated final flight of the space shuttle Columbia, STS-107, in 2003. It is also the first time SpaceX has had three Dragon spacecraft in orbit at one time, including two docked to the International Space Station.

In three days, weather permitting, the Inspiration4 crew will return home to Earth, descending aboard their Dragon under parachutes to a splashdown off the coast of Florida.


A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off with the Inspiration4 crew aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft for a three-day mission. (SpaceX)

The Inspiration4 crew members pose with their SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket prior to ascending the gantry to launch. From left: pilot Sian Proctor, medical officer Hayley Arceneaux, mission specialist Chris Sembroski and commander Jared Isaacman. (Inspiration4)

The Inspiration4 crew seated in their SpaceX Crew Dragon during a launch rehearsal. From left: mission specialist Chris Sembroski, pilot Sian Proctor, commander Jared Isaacman and medical officer Hayley Arceneaux. (SpaceX)

SpaceX infographic showing the launch profile for the Inspiration4 mission into an orbit higher than the Hubble Telescope. (SpaceX)

Inspiration4 'all-civilian' crew mission patch. (Inspiration4, LLC)

SpaceX insignia for its Inspiration4 mission on Dragon. (SpaceX)

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