If all goes as planned, four private citizens — who had never met until a few months ago — will launch atop a SpaceX rocket from Kennedy Space Center nextweek for the first all-civilian mission to orbit the Earth.
Dubbed "Inspiration4," this flight will be far more advanced than the recent suborbital "hops" that carried billionaires and other civilians.
Rather than just climbing to the edge of space and returning to land in less than an hour as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin did, Inspiration4 will circle the Earth for three days and do so in a higher orbit than the International Space Station.
Paying for it all is Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire high-school dropout, who is promoting the flight as massive fundraising effort for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
And documenting the entire process a la a reality-TV show are camera crews from Netflix.
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As of Friday, SpaceX said the launch was set for no earlier than 8 p.m. EDT Wednesday. It expects to narrow that down to a five-hour window about three days ahead of time. The crew, who arrived at Kennedy Space Center Thursday, will launch from Launch Complex 39-A at the KSC, the same pad from which Apollo 11 launched to the moon.
Isaacman, who started his internet company Shift4 Payments as a 16-year-old in the basement of his parent's house, says he knows some people will see this mission as a “billionaire going on a joyride."
But in the Netflix series "Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space" Isaacman said it was much more than an ego trip for a rich man.
"We’re not going to do this if we can’t make a huge difference for the problems the world’s faced with today or we don’t earn the right to go up into space. We gravitated right to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital," he said.
Isaacman, an accomplished pilot who is listed as the "Mission Commander and Benefactor," sees the mission as a vehicle to raise $200 million for St. Jude. He has pledged the first $100 million himself.
Isaacman is basing Inspiration4 around four "mission pillars:" Leadership, Hope, Generosity, and Prosperity, with each represented by a seat in the Dragon capsule.
"We're not going to go up with a bunch of fishing buddies," Isaacman said.
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Isaacman will fill the Leadership seat. The other three crew members are
Hayley Arceneaux, 29, who is riding in the Hope seat, is a physician assistant at St. Jude, where she was treated for bone cancer as a child. "It’s an incredible honor to be a part of this mission that is not only raising crucial funds for the lifesaving work of St. Jude but also introducing new supporters to the cause and showing cancer survivors that anything is possible," she said.
Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old data engineer for Lockheed Martin, will ride in the Generosity seat. Sembroski won his seat via a raffle among contributors to St. Jude. He is an Air Force veteran, has a B.S. degree in professional aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is a self described space junkie. His wife's thoughts on meeting him for the first time? "Nerd alert," she said. "Joining the Inspiration4 crew and its mission of support for St. Jude is truly a dream come true," Sembroski said.
Sian Proctor, 51, the daughter of an Apollo-era NASA worker, will ride in the Prosperity seat, awarded to an entrepreneur based on short videos posted to Twitter. An analog astronaut (a person who conducts activities in simulated space
conditions), Proctor combines art and poetry at her Space2Inspire website to encourage a "Just, Equitable, Diverse, and Inclusive space (J.E.D.I. space) for all of humanity." She has a Ph.D. in science education, and was a finalist to become a NASA astronaut. "Going to space has always been a dream of mine and being able to inspire the world through art and poetry makes it even more special for me," she said. She will be just the fourth Black woman to travel to space.
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Issacman, a pilot who is qualified to fly commercial and military jets, was on a phone call with some people from SpaceX in 2020 on a unrelated matter. Toward the end of the conversation, he said, "Whenever you guys are ready to really open this thing up, just, like, keep me in mind."
The SpaceX folks told him they were just about ready to send civilians to space and offered him the opportunity to be first. "And I was just all over it," Isaacman said on the Netflix series.
Isaacman and SpaceX were able to quickly reach a deal. Neither is saying how much he is paying SpaceX for the launch, though Isaacman has said it was far less than $200 million he hopes to raise for St. Jude.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk called this first private orbital space flight an important step toward his goal of eventually colonizing Mars.
"Hopefully, as the name suggests, it inspires people about spaceflight," Musk said in the Netflix series. "You need pioneers like Jared in order to have the future mission and ultimately making science fiction not fiction forever."
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SpaceX and Isaacman unveiled their project to the world in a TV ad that ran during the Super Bowl in February encouraging people to apply for the mission.
The Super Bowl ad and the all-civilian crew aren't the only signs that Inspiaration4 is something completely different from a NASA mission, which until now was the only way people reached orbit from U.S. soil.
For one thing, the timing of NASA missions are normally set far in advance of the planned launch.
But since Inspiration4 doesn't have to rendezvous with the International Space Station or plans to place a satellite in a particular orbit, the normal timing restraints don't apply.
Instead SpaceX has said it has two back-to-back 24-hour windows that open at 8 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Sept 14. It expects to narrow that down closer to launch.
Brevard County activates emergency management for launches and has a plan for crowd control for the launch, but can't put anything into place until it has a narrower launch window. "We are still in the dark for it ourselves," said county spokesman Don Walker. "We are in a holding pattern."
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Another sign that this is not a NASA mission has been the presence of Netflix cameras from almost the time the mission was conceived.
The first two episodes of the series, which became available Sept. 6, tells the story of the crew members, how they were selected, what training they've received and how their families are dealing with their loved ones tackling space travel.
While "Countdown: Insporation4 Mission to Space" is labeled a documentary series, it is more akin to reality television than a Ken Burns film. Video cameras seemed to have been omnipresent around the crew for months, capturing everything from the moment the crew members first found out they were headed to space (via Zoom calls in which reactions varied from shock to tears) to them sharing the news with friends and family to a trip to KSC to visit the launch pad where they will blast off. It even includes video footage of Arceneaux as 10-year-old patient at St. Jude.
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The crew of Inspiration4 has had to cram all its training into six months, while basic astronaut training takes two years at NASA.
Among the training the crew has received are centrifuge rides to simulate G forces, Zero-G plane training and time in a Dragon capsule simulator.
Of course, the flight is fully automated and Inspiration crew will never have to take control of the capsule.
Also setting Insporation4 apart from other space missions is the passel of goodies the crew can bring with them to space that will be auctioned off with proceeds going to St. Jude. NASA astronauts head to the space station are allowed to bring along 3.3 lbs. of personal items, with the rest of the cargo load set aside for science experiments and essential supplies.
Among those items heading up on Inspiration4:
A non-fungible token of the new song "Time in Disguise" by the Grammy-winning rock band Kings of Leon. A non-fungible token, or NFT, is the digital equivalent of unique trading card. The winning bidder will get the actual digital file of the song played in space.
Inspiration4 mission jackets featuring unique artwork by St. Jude patients.
66 pounds of hops that, upon return, will be used to brew an out-of-this world beer by the brewers of Samuel Adams. As the official beer of Inspiration4, Sam Adams has committed a maximum $100,000 donation to St. Jude.
A ukulele from Martin Guitar that Sembroski will play in space.
As the name suggests, Isaacman hopes the Inspiration4 inspires people and to look forward to the day when space travel is not limited to highly trained astronauts.
And its hard to find a more inspiring story than Arceneaux's. She will be the youngest person ever to orbit the Earth, the first cancer survivor in space and, because of a metal rod in her leg, the first person with a prosthetic to fly on a rocket.
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Inspiration4 and the recent space hops by billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have drawn pushback from those who argue that the billions of dollars spent to make space tourism possible would have been better spent helping to solve problems on Earth.
In the Netflix series, though, Musk argues that humanity can both tackle problems on Earth and explore the heavens.
"I think we should spend the vast majority of our resources solving problems on Earth. Like 99% plus of our, you know, economy should be dedicated to solving problems on Earth," he said. "But I think maybe something like 1% or less than 1% could be applied to extending life beyond Earth. ... If life is just about problems I mean why … what’s the point of living."
Follow John McCarthy on Twitter: @JournalistJohnM
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Inspiration4, first all-civilian SpaceX flight, to launch next week