For the first time ever, a spaceship carrying only inexperienced civilians is about to launch into Earth’s orbit.
After just over five months of training, four regular people are set to climb aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and blast into space atop a Falcon 9 rocket on Wednesday. Liftoff is scheduled for sometime after 8 p.m. ET, weather permitting.
None of these crew members are professional astronauts — they’ll launch from NASA’s facilities, but the agency has little to do with it otherwise. Instead, this is SpaceX’s show, the company’s first fully private human spaceflight. The customer — billionaire Jared Isaacman — picked the trajectory and chartered the Crew Dragon capsule directly from the rocket company. Isaacman hasn’t shared how much he paid, though he did say the total came in under $200 million.
“As long as it’s safe, whatever Jared would like to do, it’s up to him,” Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, said during a press conference announcing the mission in February.
Isaacman decided to fly for three days and get up to 355 miles above the ground — farther from Earth than any human has traveled since 2009, when astronauts last visited the Hubble Space Telescope. The spaceship will orbit Earth but won’t dock to the space station.
Isaacman invited three others to join him.
Hayley Arceneaux is there to represent her employer, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which is benefitting from fundraising efforts connected to the mission. Arceneaux received treatment at St. Jude’s when she had bone cancer as a child. She has a rod in her leg as a result, and she’ll be the first person with a prosthetic to go to space.
Sian Proctor, a geoscientist, won her role as pilot by submitting a video to a contest for a seat. Proctor was a finalist for NASA’s 2009 astronaut class and has served as an analogue astronaut in simulations of long-term Mars missions on the ground.
Chris Sembroski, an engineer at Lockheed Martin, got his seat after a friend who won the raffle for it backed out, offering it to him instead. Sembroski has flown for the US Air Force and been a counselor at Space Camp.
That motley crew will spend their three days in space collecting data for scientific research, enjoying the views, and likely doing some publicity. Their mission is named Inspiration4 — partly for its designation as the first fully private amateur spaceflight, and partly as a nod to Shift4, the payment-processing company that Isaacman founded after dropping out of high school.
SpaceX flew its first astronauts for NASA last year and has since launched two other crews to the space station. The company already has a second group of private tourists lined up for next year as it leads the charge into a new era of commercial human spaceflight.
Watch SpaceX launch its first tourists live
The mission’s five-hour launch window opens at 8:02 p.m. ET on Wednesday, though the liftoff time is flexible.
SpaceX plans to broadcast the launch live starting at 4 p.m. ET, via the embed below.
If the mission can’t launch on Wednesday, a backup window opens at 8:05 p.m. ET on Thursday.
This is nothing like the flights two other billionaires — Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson — took in July. Both of those vehicles skimmed the edge of space for a few minutes before falling back down, since their rockets were too small to make the push into orbit.
When Inspiration4 lifts off, by contrast, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will push the spaceship close to orbit, then the booster will detach and fall back to Earth to fly again another day.
After that, the rocket’s upper stage should give the Crew Dragon a final push before it, too, breaks away. That would leave the Crew Dragon and its passengers drifting above our planet 13 minutes after liftoff.
After that, they can strip off their spacesuits. The crew plans to eat cold pizza for dinner.
Since Inspiration4 won’t go to the space station, SpaceX replaced the port the spaceship usually uses for docking with a rounded window — a cupola. This glass dome has never flown to space. It’s designed for a spaceship passenger’s most memorable experience: the views.
Then, come Saturday or early Sunday, the Crew Dragon will fire its thrusters to push itself into the atmosphere. This will initiate a high-speed, fiery plummet. Tiles on the spaceship’s underbelly must protect its passengers as friction superheats the air around it to a 3,500-degree-Fahrenheit plasma. Then the spaceship must deploy parachutes to drift to an ocean splashdown.
Crew Dragon has carried astronauts on this return journey twice without incident.
SpaceX developed the spaceship for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a competition that awarded funding to facilitate the development of commercial spacecraft. The goal was to make human spaceflight from the US possible again, since no spaceship had launched people from the US since 2011, when the Space Shuttle Program ended. SpaceX broke that dry spell when it flew its first astronauts in May 2020.