By Denise Chow- NBC News
SpaceX made history. Again.
The spaceflight company founded by billionaire Elon Musk put this Wednesday into orbit four passengers on the first mission into space with an all-civilian crew.
A reusable Falcon 9 rocket lifted off shortly after 8 p.m. ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
On board were Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old tech entrepreneur, Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old geoscientist, Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old aerospace data engineer, and Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old medical assistant.
The crew will spend three days in orbit around the Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.
It is not the first time that private passengers pay to fly into space, but the mission, called Inspiration4, is the first expedition in orbit without a professional astronaut on board. The historic flight represents the next stage in the evolution of manned space travel, as access to the cosmos expands beyond governments and their space agencies.
“The door is wide open,” Isaacman said he got to the right space for the crew.
The SpaceX rocket was launched in a thunder into the night sky from the same platform as NASA’s Apollo lunar missions, as well as the first and last flights of the space shuttle. During their climb into orbit, the crew members cheered enthusiastically and showed thumbs-up signals as they passed each of the major milestones.
Isaacman, founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, a Pennsylvania-based payment processing company, paid an undisclosed amount for the three-day trip in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.
The Inspiration4 mission is part of a charitable initiative to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Isaacman donated $ 100 million to the hospital, and also paid for the seats of his three crewmates on the flight in donation mode.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 16, 2021
“This dream started 10 months ago,” Isaacman said Tuesday in a pre-flight briefing. “We set out from the beginning to convey a very inspiring message, certainly what can be done in space and the possibilities there are, but also what we can achieve here on Earth,” he said.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft will circle the planet 15 times each day from a height of nearly 360 miles, higher than the current orbits of the space station and the Hubble space telescope, according to SpaceX.
The Inspiration4 mission will resemble routine SpaceX flights to the International Space Station, except this time the capsule will not dock with the orbiting laboratory. For this reason, the company has added a new glass dome to the top of the ship so that its crew can have 360-degree views.
NASA was quick to congratulate the Inspiration4 team on Wednesday, tweeting that the launch “represents an important milestone in the quest to make room for everyone.”
The successful launch of the Inspiration4 mission is a key milestone for SpaceX and a boost for the burgeoning space tourism industry.
Two months ago, rival billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson took to space in vehicles developed by their respective aerospace companies. Although both flights were suborbital, both Bezos’ Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic plan to offer space tourists in orbit trips in the future.
These pioneering flights are, for now, limited to those who can afford to spend millions of dollars on a ticket. But they could accelerate the expansion of private space flights, making space travel more regular and ultimately more affordable.
The first space tourist, American billionaire Dennis Tito, launched himself to the International Space Station on an eight-day expedition in 2001. Tito paid $ 20 million to fly aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. So far, only seven civilians, including Tito, have paid to fly into space.
Arceneaux, a bone cancer survivor, now works at St. Jude; Sembroski is a veteran of the US Air Force; and Proctor is a certified pilot and former NASA astronaut candidate.
Proctor got his ticket to the space through an online contest run by Shift4 Payments and Sembroski won his seat in a charity drive to raise money for the hospital.
The crew members have called their trip a “humanitarian mission” and discussed how they hope to inspire people around the world.
“I want to thank everyone for all the support, encouragement and love,” Arceneaux tweeted on Wednesday, a few hours after the launch.
“And thanks [al hospital] @StJude for being the reason I’m here today. This is for everyone who has ever been through something difficult, and I know we all have. Keep hopeful because there will be better days, “he added.
The Inspiration4 mission is just the beginning of SpaceX’s ambitious plans to put paid customers into orbit.
Main engine cutoff and stage separation confirmed. Second stage engine burn underway pic.twitter.com/ihYA8ELUVA
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 16, 2021
Earlier this year, the company announced that the space station’s first private crew, led by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, will be launched in early 2022. López-Alegría will be accompanied by three men who will pay 55 millions of dollars each to spend eight days on the space station.
In 2018, SpaceX also said that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, founder and CEO of fashion store Zozo, would be the first private passenger to fly around the moon on a mission that is scheduled for sometime in 2023.