Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched a crew of four amateur astronauts into orbit, marking the company’s first step in the growing space tourism industry.
For the first time, a spacecraft will fly around the Earth without professional astronauts on board.
The four — two winners, a healthcare worker and their billionaire sponsor — will spend three days around the globe in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule before landing in the Atlantic Ocean this weekend.
The SpaceX launch comes after Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin launched their first commercial flights in July.
The Falcon 9 capsule and rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 1:02 a.m. CEST on Thursday.
“Opening the Door”
The four crew members aboard SpaceX’s Inspiration4 launch include a billionaire who made his fortune starting a payment processing company as a teenager and a medical professional who beat bone cancer as a child.
The mission was conceived as a fundraising opportunity for Tennessee Children’s Cancer Hospital and is claimed to have raised nearly €100 million in donations.
The mission will see the Crew Dragon capsule orbit the Earth at an altitude of 160 kilometers higher than that of the International Space Station.
Online payments billionaire Jared Isaakman, who paid for the flight, noted when entering orbit that few people have been in space – less than 600 in 60 years. But he added, “Many are going to follow him. Now the door is opening and it’s pretty unbelievable.”
Their automated capsule was already in orbit: it was used for the second flight of SpaceX astronauts for NASA to the space station. The only significant change is a large domed window at the top instead of the usual space station docking mechanisms.
Experienced pilot Isaacman convinced SpaceX to raise the Dragon capsule higher than ever. Initially reluctant due to increased radiation exposure and other risks, SpaceX agreed after a security review.
Who is the crew?
Jared Isaacman, 38, the billionaire who funded Thursday’s launch. Isaacman reportedly paid around €170 million for all four seats on the Crew Dragon capsule, though he and SpaceX have not confirmed the figure.
He made his money with Shift4 Payments, which he created in 1999 at the age of 16.
Isaacman is also a trained pilot who flew jet aircraft as part of the Black Diamond civilian aerobatic team and co-founded a private air force for military training fighters called Draken International.
Sian Proctor, 51, is a professor of geosciences and a former NASA astronaut candidate.
Proctor, also a licensed pilot, has completed four “analogue” astronaut projects on Earth involving space simulations, including a four-month NASA-funded mission to artificial Mars to study nutritional strategies for long-duration spaceflight.
She is only the fourth African American woman to have been in space.
Physician assistant Haley Arceno, 29, lost part of her left hip and knee to bone cancer when she was 10. She was treated at the Saint Jude Children’s Research Center in Memphis, Tennessee, the pediatric cancer center where she now works.
Arceneau said she was motivated to take part in the spaceflight to show her young patients “what life can be like after cancer.”
The last crew member is 42-year-old Chris Sembroski, a data engineer for the American defense company Lockheed Martin.
He won a seat in a lottery to raise funds for St. Jude Cancer Center. However, Sembrosky was not the original winner – a friend won the launch seat, but asked Sembrosky to take it in his stead.