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SpaceX launches four civilians into orbit on historic Inspiration4 flight

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX made history tonight as it launched a crew of private citizens on a jaunt around Earth. For an added bonus, the rocket landed on its drone ship, marking the company's 92nd booster recovery.

The mission, called Inspiration4, blasted off from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center here in Florida at 8:02 p.m. EDT (0002 GMT) — the start of a planned five-hour window. A four-person crew was strapped inside a Crew Dragon spacecraft which sat perched atop a slightly sooty 229-feet-tall (70 meters) Falcon 9 rocket

"Few have come before, and many are about to follow," Inspiration4 Cmdr. Jared Issacman said from inside the Crew Dragon spacecraft, referring to civilians in space. "The door is now open, and it's pretty incredible."

Ahead of the historic liftoff, forecasters at the U.S. Space Force's 45th Weather Squadron predicted an 80% chance of favorable weather conditions, and mother nature did not disappoint. The Falcon 9 lit up the sky, turning night into day and it climbed through the atmosphere on a pillar of flames and smoke. The rumble from its engines even set off car alarms at the viewing area. 

Live updates: SpaceX's Inspiration4 private all-civilian orbital mission 

The Inspiration4 mission blasts off on Sept. 15, 2021. (Image credit: John Kraus/Inspiration4)

Inspiring hope

Ten months ago, billionaire tech entrepreneur Jared Isaacman announced to the world that he would embark on a new type of spaceflight: one that didn't involve professional astronauts but carried private citizens into space. In an effort to set his mission apart from other billionaires going to space, Isaacman decided to raise money and awareness for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. 

To that end, the Inspiration4 mission was born. Isaacman purchased a flight on a Dragon from SpaceX for an undisclosed amount of money. He knew he would be using those seats to carry out his mission objective of inspiring humanity while raising money for children's cancer research.

The first seat he said would go to a frontline worker. That lucky person is Hayley Arceneaux, who is not only a cancer survivor and former patient at St. Jude, but she is also a physician's assistant working for the organization that saved her life. She is the youngest American to fly in space and the first to do so with a prosthesis. (She has a metal rod in her leg following surgery during her battle with cancer.)

The four Inspiration4 astronauts wave and give thumb's up signs to the camera inside SpaceX's Crew Dragon Resilience as they await launch atop NASA's Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 15, 2021. They are (from left): Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman and Hayley Arceneaux.

The four Inspiration4 astronauts wave and give thumbs up signs to the camera inside SpaceX's Crew Dragon Resilience as they await launch atop NASA's Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 15, 2021. They are (from left): Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman and Hayley Arceneaux. (Image credit: SpaceX)

The second seat was part of an auction that raised $13 million alone for St. Jude. Featured in a 30-second ad that aired during the Superbowl this year, the winner of this seat was drawn from a pool of donors. That winner ended up being Chris Sembroski, though he didn't technically win, one of his friends did and they gave the seat to him.

The final seat was up for grabs as part of a shark tank-like contest, where entrepreneurs across the country could make a shop that would bring in donations for St. Jude. Contestants would submit videos promoting their shops, and one winner would be chosen to fly on the mission. Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and professor at Southern Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona was ultimately selected as the winner for her efforts to sell her art and poetry. 

The crew hopes that their mission will inspire others around the world to never give up and keep pursuing their dream of reaching for the stars. 

For one crewmember in particular, this is her life's dream come true. Proctor, whose father worked on the Apollo moon program for NASA, has always wanted to be an astronaut. She was a finalist in NASA's astronaut selection process in 1999 but ultimately was passed over. More than a decade later, she is living her dream. 

The flight is also a foray into what SpaceX hopes will be a new era of space: one where regular people, like the crew of Inspiration4, can travel to space. 

"The all-civilian Inspiration4 astronauts are paving the way for a future where space is more accessible to all who wish to go, and we are so proud that they entrusted us to fly them," SpaceX president and COO, Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement emailed to Space.com.

"Our crew carries the responsibility and importance of this mission as we prepare to blast off," Isaacman said in the same statement. "We have been well-prepared for the challenges ahead of us the next three days and look forward to sharing our experience with the world as we continue to bring attention to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital here on Earth."

Dragon riders

Isaacman, Arceneaux, Proctor and Sembroski are the fourth crew to ride in a Dragon capsule. SpaceX built the vehicle as an astronaut taxi service to ferry humans to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and other destinations. Isaccman will serve as the mission's commanders, with Proctor acting as his pilot, and Arceneaux and Sembroski will be mission specialists.

The vehicle is designed to be fully autonomous, so Proctor and the rest of the crew ideally won't actually be doing any piloting, that responsibility will rest with SpaceX crews here on the ground. (Although the crew is trained on how to "fly" the Dragon in case of an anomaly.)

Related: Sian Proctor makes history with SpaceX's Inspiration4 as first-ever Black female spacecraft pilot

Crew Dragon was selected by NASA (along with Boeing's Starliner spacecraft) to serve as the agency's means of transporting astronauts to and from space. Previously the agency relied on Russia and its Soyuz spacecraft following the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. But now, the agency has options and hopes to have a Russian Cosmonaut fly on a Dragon soon. 

Following its development and testing, two NASA astronauts — Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — climbed on board and flew Dragon to the International Space Station for the first time in May 2020. That mission, called Demo-2, paved the way for NASA to being regular astronaut flights to the orbital outpost. 

The Dragon used in this mission, named Resilience by the Crew-1 astronauts, will carry the Inspiration4 crew on a higher-than-normal trajectory. They will travel to an altitude of 357 miles (575 km) above the Earth, which is actually higher than both the space station and the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's not the farthest that humans will have traveled since the Apollo moon landings — the crew of the space shuttle mission STS-82 actually flew a little higher when they went to service Hubble in 1997. 

When the Dragon separated from the Falcon 9 about 12 minutes after liftoff, it marked the first time that three different Dragon spacecraft were in orbit at the same time. (The other two, Crew Dragon Endeavour and a cargo Dragon spacecraft, are currently docked with the space station.)

For this flight, Dragon Resilience received a slick upgrade in the form of a large dome window called a cupola. Like a miniature version of the iconic windows installed on the space station, this cupola is located at the nose of the spacecraft, right above the vehicle's toilet. 

Through this window, the crew will be treated to breathtaking views of the Earth while they orbit the planet, experiencing approximately 15 sunrises and sunsets per day. 

"I'm really excited to see the Earth from space; it's going to be so incredible," Hayley Arceneaux said during a prelaunch news conference on Tuesday (Sept. 14).

Proctor said she plans to spend time sitting in the cupola and staring at the planet below, using her awe-inspiring views as a muse for new poetry she plans to write during the flight.  

Related: The private Inspiration4 astronauts on SpaceX's Dragon may have an epic view … from the toilet

A view of the Inspiration4 zero-g indicator, a small stuffed golden retriever dog to represent service dogs at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. (Image credit: SpaceX)

The crew will spend approximately three days in their Dragon spacecraft as they orbit the planet. Currently, they are estimated to splash down sometime on Saturday (Sept. 18) or Sunday (Sept. 19); however, Isaacman says that the Dragon has the ability to host the crew for as much as a week in space in case of poor weather or other issues that may crop up. 

Training for flight

The crew went through a very intense training program that included many hours in the Dragon simulator, survival training on Mount Rainier, and multiple flights in fighter jets, where representatives from SpaceX say that Hayley Arceneaux pulled 8 Gs. 

Additionally, the crew went through more than 90 different training programs and practiced what would happen in case of emergencies in orbit. Part of those exercises included spending 30 straight hours in the simulator, running through different anomalies that could happen during their flight. 

Isaacman said that the trainers threw many different scenarios to the team, from small anomalies to having to perform an emergency deorbit. 

"We want to make life multiplanetary and that means putting millions of people in space one day," he said in Tuesday's news conference. "So, as we look for ways to evolve toward that airline-like model, we'll look for how we can, you know, cut back on the amount of training that's necessary, while still keeping the crew safe." 

This type of streamlining is also present in NASA's astronaut missions, with the training having been streamlined from the Demo-2 mission to the Crew-2 launch that blasted off in April of this year. 

Inspiration4 crew experiences weightlessness during zero-g flight. (Image credit: Inspiration4/John Kraus)

Among their training efforts, the crew trained for a barrage of scientific and medical experiments they will conduct in space, ultrasounds, and other medical exams like monitoring blood oxygen levels as well as pulse and heart rate, which will help expand our knowledge of how microgravity affects the human body.  

That data will be shared with researchers at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. 

Historically, astronauts have been the best-of-the-best, in peak physical shape, so it will be beneficial to have data from regular people. Arceneaux says that half of the crew will monitor blood glucose levels in space that could one day lead to advancements in diabetes as well as paving the way to support astronauts and other space travelers who depend on insulin. 

Falcon's flight

The Inspiration4 mission shortly after launch on Sept. 15, 2021. (Image credit: SpaceX)

The Inspiration4 mission marks the 128th flight to date for SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, and the second to fly within a week. The booster doing all the work this time is one of SpaceX's newest rockets, which now has three flights under its belt. (It previously carried two different GPS satellites for the U.S. Space Force.) 

The veteran spaceflyer, whose exterior is slightly sooty from its previous trips to space and back, rolled out to the pad a few days ahead of its planned launch. Perched atop its launch pad — the same launch pad that once hosted the Apollo moon missions and NASA's storied space shuttle program — the Falcon 9 was put through its paces ahead of launch during a test known as a static fire. 

This is a routine part of prelaunch testing for SpaceX, so that engineers can assure that the rocket's systems are working as expected. During the test, the rocket is held down on the pad, while its nine Merlin 1D engines are briefly fired. Engineers then review the data and declare the rocket ready to launch. 

On the left, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket begins its engine burn as, on the right, the Inspiration4 mission continues into space, on Sept. 15, 2021. (Image credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX has always said its overarching goal is to make space travel more accessible. To that end, the company has been reusing its Falcon 9 rockets, making them more reliable and less expensive than traditional expendable rockets. 

To that end, the company is able to refly the same rockets many times over, as evident with the company's launch on Monday night. The booster used on that mission, which launched from the company's West Coast launch facilities, blasted off on its tenth flight. After depositing a stack of 51 Starlink internet satellites into orbit, the rocket's first stage touched down on the deck of SpaceX's drone ship, "Of Course I Still Love You" for a record 10th time. 

Recovery efforts

Less than 10 minutes after liftoff, the rocket featured in Wednesday's flight was back on Earth. The booster landed on the deck of one of SpaceX's drone ships, "Just Read the Instructions," sticking the company's 92nd successful landing. 

SpaceX's drone ships are roughly the size of a football field and are designed to serve as a floating landing platform. The company has three of these massive ships at its disposal — two on the East Coast and one on the West Coast — all three of which are named for the planet-sized Culture ships in the Iain M. Banks science fiction series.

The booster will come back slightly more sooty than it left. That's because when the rocket lands, it has to flip around and fly through its own exhaust plume. The vehicle's fuel — called RP-1, which is rocket-grade kerosene — is carbon-based and as such generates some soot when it burns. That soot is then deposited back on the rocket as it returns to Earth.

Once the booster arrives back in port, it will be refurbished and prepped to fly again. To date, this particular booster has three different flights under its belt and with any luck, it will fly again. 

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