First all-civilian crew set to go into Earth orbit
Yet another American billionaire entrepreneur is set to ride into space this week, strapped inside the capsule of a SpaceX rocketship, as part of an astro-tourist team poised to make history as the first all-civilian crew launched into Earth orbit.
Jared Isaacman, the founder and chief executive of e-commerce firm Shift4 Payments, will lead three fellow spaceflight novices on a trip expected to last three days from blastoff at Cape Canaveral, Florida, to splashdown in the Atlantic.
The 38-year-old tech mogul has paid an unspecified but presumably exorbitant sum to fellow billionaire and SpaceX owner Elon Musk to fly Isaacman and three specially selected travel mates into orbit aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
The crew vehicle is set for blastoff from NASA's Kennedy Space Center atop one of Musk's reusable Falcon 9 rockets, with a 24-hour targeted launch window that opens at 8pm EDT on Wednesday. That window will be narrowed, or possibly altered, a few days before, depending on weather.
Dubbed Inspiration4, the orbital outing was conceived by Isaacman primarily to raise awareness and support for one of his favorite causes, St Jude Children's Research Hospital, a leading pediatric cancer center. He has pledged US$100 million personally to the institute.
But a successful mission would also usher in a new era of commercial space tourism, with several firms vying for wealthy customers willing to pay a small fortune to experience the exhilaration of supersonic flight, weightlessness and the visual spectacle of space.
SpaceX is easily the most well-established player in the burgeoning constellation of commercial rocket ventures, having already launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA.
Rival companies Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin both recently celebrated their debut astro-tourism missions with their respective founding executives – billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos – each going along for the ride.
But those two high-profile flights were suborbital in scale, sending their crews of citizen astronauts to space and back in a matter of minutes.
The SpaceX flight is designed to carry its four passengers where no all-civilian crew has gone before – into Earth orbit.
There, they will circle the globe once every 90 minutes at more than 20,000 kilometers per hour, or roughly 22 times the speed of sound.
The Inspiration4 crew will have no part to play in operating their spacecraft, despite some largely honorary titles, though two members – Isaacman and geoscientist Sian Proctor – are licensed pilots.
Isaacman, who is rated to fly commercial and military jets, has assumed the role of mission "commander," while Proctor, 51, once a NASA astronaut candidate herself, has been designated as the mission "pilot." She was selected to join the team through an online contest run by Shift4 Payments.
Rounding out the crew are "chief medical officer" Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a bone cancer survivor turned St Jude physicians' assistant, and mission "specialist" Chris Sembroski, 42, a US Air Force veteran and aerospace data engineer. He won a seat in a sweepstake that drew 72,000 applicants and has raised over US$100 million in St Jude donations.