‘Many will follow’: SpaceX sends all-civilian crew into orbit

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying four space tourists
blasted off Wednesday night from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the
first mission to orbit the globe with an all-civilian crew.

A huge fireball illuminated the sky as the rocket’s nine
engines began to pull away from Earth at 8:02 pm (0002 GMT Thursday).

Around 12 minutes later, the Dragon capsule separated from
the rocket’s send stage as the crew entered orbit, while the re-usable first
stage made its way back to Earth for a vertical landing on a sea barge.

“A few have gone before and many are about to
follow,” said Jared Isaacman, the 38-year-old billionaire who chartered
the flight.

The spaceship’s trajectory will take it to an altitude of
357 miles (575 kilometers), which is deeper into space than the International
Space Station (ISS).

After spending three days spinning around planet Earth, the
four-person crew, all Americans, will splash down off the Florida coast.

“The #Inspiration4 launch reminds us of what can be
accomplished when we partner with private industry!” tweeted NASA
administrator Bill Nelson ahead of the launch.

NASA’s commercial crew program was founded in 2011.

Tough training

SpaceX, founded by billionaire Tesla owner Elon Musk, hasn’t
disclosed what the trip cost Isaacman — but the price tag runs into the tens
of millions of dollars. 

Inspiration4’s crew leader is a high school dropout who went
on to found Shift4 Payments, which provides payment processing services. He is
also a keen aviator.  

His three crewmates were selected through a competition, and
their stories have been followed in a Netflix documentary.

Hayley Arceneaux, a pediatric cancer survivor, is a
29-year-old physician assistant. She is the youngest American to go into orbit
and the first person with a prosthesis, on a part of her femur.

Chris Sembroski, 42, is a US Air Force veteran who now works
as an aerospace data engineer.

Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old geoscientist and educator, was
almost selected to become an astronaut for NASA in 2009, and is only the fourth
African-American woman to go to space.

Former US first lady Michelle Obama congratulated the crew
after lift-off.

“They’re inspiring us all with their courage,
curiosity, and passion,” she tweeted. 

“I’m thinking of all the young people who’ll be looking
up to this crew and dreaming big thanks to them. Ad astra!”

The mission aims to raise $200 million for St Jude’s
Children’s Research Hospital, a leading facility in Tennessee. Arceneaux
received treatment there as a child, and now works there.

The crew were set to take with them various objects — a
ukulele, hops intended to brew space beer and several digital assets known as
non-fungible tokens — that will be auctioned off for the cause.

Throughout the flight, biological data including heart rate
and sleep, as well as their cognitive capacities, will be analyzed to study the
health impacts of space.

The Dragon capsule is equipped, for the first time, with a
cupola observation dome — the largest ever space window — to take in the
view. The dome replaces the usual mechanism used on Dragons to dock with the
ISS.

Privatization of space

Beyond the mission’s charitable and scientific aspects, its
stated goal is to prove that the cosmos is accessible to people who have
not been handpicked and trained for years as astronauts.

The flight should remain fully automated, but the crew
members have been trained by SpaceX to be able to take control in the event of
an emergency.

The space adventure bookends a summer marked by the battle
of the billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos to reach the final frontier.

Branson, the Virgin Galactic founder, achieved the feat
first, on July 11, and was followed by the Blue Origin boss nine days later.

But these flights only offered a few minutes of
weightlessness. 

This is the fourth crewed mission for SpaceX, which has now
sent 10 astronauts to the ISS for NASA.

“Congratulations #Inspiration4! Low-Earth orbit is now more accessible for more people to experience the wonders of space,” NASA’s Nelson tweeted.

  “We look forward to the future –- one where @NASA is one of many customers in the commercial space market. Onward and upward!”





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