SpaceX Launches Four Civilians to Space with Inspiration4!

Update: SpaceX has posted footage of what its like to see Earth from space when peering through the Resilience‘s cupola!

Today, history was made when the first all-civilian spaceflight launched from Launch Complex 39A at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The purpose of this flight was to raise awareness and funds for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and offer inspiration to people all over the world. Operated by SpaceX and sponsored by Jared Isaacman and Shift4Payments, this flight illustrates how accessibility to space is growing by leaps and bounds.

The mission began at 08:02 PM local time (05:02 PM PST) as the Crew Dragon spacecraft blasted off the launch pad atop a SpaceX Falcon 9. The rocket lifted off without any issues and soared into the night sky, rapidly gaining altitude towards orbit. During the next few minutes, the mission controllers at SpaceX watched in anticipation and waited for updates. They were joined by people all over the world watching the many live streams of the event.

This mission represents several milestones. In addition to being the first all-civilian spaceflight, it is also the first free-flight Crew Dragon mission and the first crewed orbital mission that will not dock with a space station since the final Hubble mission in 2009 (STS-125). The crew is targeting an approximate 575 km orbit, flying farther than any human since Hubble, for an expected mission duration of approximately three days.

Close-up of the Falcon 9 Raptor engines (left) and the launch vehicle reaching the upper atmosphere (right). Credit: Max Evans/Alex Brock

The crew for the mission included Jared Isaacson, the mission benefactor, CEO of Shift4Payments, and commander of the mission. He was joined by Dr. Sian Proctor, a professor of geoscience, science communicator, and analog astronaut who piloted the spacecraft. Hayley Arceneaux, a Physicians Assistant (P.A.) at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, was the mission’s medic, while aeronautical engineer and retired USAF officer Chris Sembroski served as the mission specialist.

Together, they represent the mission ideals of Leadership, Prosperity, Hope, and Generosity, respectively. Thanks to their commitment and participation, the money raised by this mission will fund the life-saving research conducted at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. St. Jude specializes in pediatrics and cancer research and is also where crew-member Arceneaux received treatment for bone cancer as a child and now works as a P.A. As Isaacman said just before launch:

“Our crew carries the responsibility and importance of this mission as we prepare to blast off. 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.”

The first stage separated at 2m45s into the mission, followed by the second stage ignited its Merlin engine. At 5 minutes, the first and second stages began picking up light from the Sun, which created a “jellyfish effect” in the night sky. This was accompanied by the first stage firing its cold gas thrusters to reorient itself for reentry, which produced a flashing effect in the sky. All of this came together to create a stunning visual display of bright lights in the night sky.

The Falcon 9 entering the upper atmosphere (left) and the “jellyfish effect” after the first stage separation. Credit: Max Evans

At 7m30s, the first stage reigniting its engines for its reentry burn and by 9m40, it landed at sea the SpaceX drone ship Just Follow the Instructions. At 10 minutes after launch, the second stage reached 200 km above sea level and prepared to deploy the Dragon spacecraft. At 12:15 into the mission, the Resilience detached and slowly moved away from the second stage, officially putting the crew of Inspiration4 in orbit!

The cabin cameras showed the crew of four strapped into their seats and in high spirits throughout the flight, with Isaacson and Dr. Proctor tending to the Resilience‘s flight terminals. After the Crew Dragon separated from the spacecraft’s second stage, Dr. Proctor and Sembroski were seen fist-bumping each other, and Dr. Proctor gave the thumbs up to the camera a few times during the flight.

Universe Today’s Max Evans was on the scene to capture the launch (images posted above and below). As he said of the event:

“What a spectacle…the press site here at KSC hasn’t been this alive in quite some time. The atmosphere was electric, and cheers erupted from the crowd when the 9 Merlin engines ignited. As the Falcon 9 and Resilience leaped off of LC-39A, every single person here knew that they were flying into the history books. And everyone here felt elated to be a part of it. What a time to be alive.”

Around 15 minutes after launch, the crew nose cone of the Resilience was opened, revealing the cupola that was added to the spacecraft (instead of the docking adapter). The crew will not be able to take in the breathtaking sights the cupola will provide just yet. But it won’t be long before they are unable to unstrap themselves, float around the cabin, and take in some truly spectacular views of Earth from space.

The primary objective of this mission is to raise awareness and funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which specializes in pediatrics and cancer research. The live stream alone managed to raise $300,000 in donations for children’s cancer research. However, that was merely the tip of the iceberg, according to Richard C. Shadyac Jr., the President and CEO of the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) – the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude’s. As he said:

“We are thankful to Jared for his incredible leadership as the commander of the historic mission and for his work helping to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The significance of Inspiration4 cannot be overstated. The mission ushers in a new era in citizen space travel and gives hope to children.

Cancer is diagnosed each year in about 400,000 children worldwide. Curing catastrophic diseases in children is a multi-trillion-dollar, multi-year problem and the public’s support – through initiatives like Inspiration4 – makes it possible for us to raise the critical funds needed to help save children everywhere.”  

For information on how you can contribute, check out the Inspiration4 website. And be sure to catch the replays shown above and below!

Further Reading: Inspiration4

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

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