Four private citizens are set to launch into orbit Wednesday in what will be the first mission to space without any professional astronauts on board.
The all-civilian crew will ride to space aboard a rocket and capsule developed by SpaceX. The mission, dubbed Inspiration4, is just the latest milestone flight in what has been a busy year for private spaceflight companies, following joyrides to suborbital space by billionaire entrepreneurs Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos over the summer.
Another billionaire, Jared Isaacman, is set to lead the historic all-civilian mission. Isaacman, the 38-year-old founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, a Pennsylvania-based payment processing company, paid an unspecified amount for the three-day expedition in SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule.
The spacecraft is scheduled to launch Wednesday atop a reusable Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The five-hour launch window opens at 8:02 p.m. EDT, and SpaceX is planning to broadcast the event live. Forecasts currently project a 70 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for the evening launch.
The Crew Dragon capsule will spend three days circling Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Florida, according to SpaceX.
“From the start of this mission, I’ve been very aware of how fortunate we are to be part of this history SpaceX is creating right now,” Isaacman said Tuesday in a preflight briefing, adding that the orbital outing is designed to inspire people.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said that while early space tourism flights may be out of reach for all but very wealthy people, these pioneering missions will lay the groundwork for more regular and more affordable trips to space in the future.
If successful, the Inspiration4 expedition will represent a major leap for space tourism. It will also be a boon for SpaceX, which has dominated the private spaceflight industry, including over rivals such as Bezos and his aerospace company Blue Origin.
Joining Isaacman on the journey will be 29-year-old Hayley Arceneaux, a bone cancer survivor who now works as a physician assistant at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Arceneaux, who will act as the crew's chief medical officer, will become the youngest American to fly in space.
Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran and aerospace data engineer, and 51-year-old Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and licensed pilot, will round out the crew.
The expedition is part of a charity initiative to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In addition to giving $100 million to St. Jude, Isaacman donated the three other seats on the Inspiration4 flight to his crew members.
Proctor, a former NASA astronaut candidate, won her ticket to space through an online contest conducted by Shift4 Payments. Sembroski won his seat in a charity drive to raise money for St. Jude.
The Inspiration4 mission will resemble SpaceX's routine flights to the International Space Station, except this time, the capsule will not dock at the orbiting lab. Instead, the spacecraft will circle the planet 15 times each day from an altitude of nearly 360 miles, higher than the current orbits of the space station and the Hubble Space Telescope, according to SpaceX.
Though the flight is an important milestone for the space tourism industry, the Inspiration4 crew members will not just be along for the ride. During their three-day expedition, Isaacman, Proctor, Sembroski and Arceneaux will perform a series of medical experiments that could inform future spaceflights and have applications for human health closer to home.
The crew members have been undergoing intense spaceflight training since March, including in simulators and on Zero-G flights that offer short periods of microgravity.
In a preflight briefing, Proctor spoke about her excitement and anticipation ahead of the launch.
"Since the announcement when we were here last, every day has been the best day of my life," Proctor said, speaking from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "Every day, it just gets better and better."