SpaceX Launches Four People on Private Dragon Spaceflight

SpaceX Launches Four People on Private Dragon Spaceflight. The flight, dubbed Inspiration4, took off at 8:02 p.m. local time Wednesday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and reached an orbiting height of 585 kilometers (364 miles) around three hours later. Inside the company’s Dragon crew capsule are Jared Isaacman, a technology billionaire, and three other U.S. citizens without specialized astronaut training.

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“I really do see this as a renaissance in human space transportation,” Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s commercial spaceflight division, said before the launch, alluding to the commercial nature of the journey, with the crew of four flying aboard a privately built spacecraft in a trip SpaceX will oversee. It’s the first of several private spaceflights that Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is planning in coming years, with the next scheduled for early 2022.

SpaceX Launches Four People on Private Dragon Spaceflight

Four people are set to launch to space Wednesday night aboard a SpaceX capsule, and none of them are professional astronauts. Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist, booked the Crew Dragon capsule last year and picked three normal folks to ride with him. It will be the first completely private mission to orbit.

Dubbed Inspiration 4, the mission is a multimillion-dollar fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Hospital and — like many recent flights to space these days — an effort to convince those watching from the ground that space won’t always be exclusive to government officials and the ultra-wealthy.

Isaacman’s crew includes Hayley Arceneaux, a cancer survivor, St. Jude physician assistant; Sian Proctor, a geology professor, a former NASA astronaut candidate; and Christopher Sembroski, a data engineer Lockheed Martin.

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The Inspiration 4 crew is slated to launch Wednesday at 8:02 PM ET atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, buckled inside the same Crew Dragon capsule that sent a four-person crew of government astronauts to nearly a year ago the International Space Station and back. This mission’s destination is about 80 miles higher than the ISS.

In orbit, they’ll view Earth through two windows and a new glass dome that was added to the top of the capsule, where Crew Dragon’s ISS docking door was. The crew will reenter the atmosphere after three days, depending on the weather around Florida, and splashdown in the Atlantic ocean. After that, SpaceX recovery teams will likely meet up with the capsule, hoist it onto a ship, extract the crew, and bring them ashore.

In addition to serving as a proof-of-concept demonstration flight, the mission will also raise $200 million in charity for childhood cancer research. Beyond the undisclosed sum Isaacman is paying SpaceX for the flight — reported as $200 million by Time magazine — he has also pledged $100 million to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

As the countdown to liftoff neared zero, Isaacman could be heard saying, “Punch it, SpaceX.”  

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The flight set a new altitude record for SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft and takes the foursome deeper into space than any flight since the last Hubble telescope servicing mission in May 2009 aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. The Hubble orbits about 340 miles above Earth.

NASA played no role in the trip planning beyond some technical consultations and training assistance for the crew.

Orbital Altitude

Hayley Arceneaux, left, and Jared Isaacman walk out and board the Tesla Model Xs that will take them to the launchpad during a launch rehearsal on September 12, 2021.

The orbital altitude has been a source of debate between SpaceX and Isaacman, shown in a Netflix documentary produced about the flight pressing for an altitude higher than the space station during an early meeting at the company’s California headquarters. The station’s altitude is about 255 miles. 

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A detailed risk analysis concluded that the vehicle would have enough fuel at the higher altitude, carbon dioxide management, and food and other supplies, SpaceX’s human spaceflight director, Benjamin Reed, said at the briefing. The Dragon is configured to remain in orbit for a week if needed, Isaacman tweeted Tuesday.

“If we’re going to go to the moon again and we’re going to go to Mars and beyond, we’ve got to get a little bit outside of our comfort zone and take that next step in that direction,” Isaacman said.

The Bottom Line

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is the workhorse of the company’s growing fleet of rockets. It stands at nearly 230 feet tall and can launch as much as 25 tons to low Earth orbit. 

A few days before the Inspiration4 launch, SpaceX performed a static fire test of the full Falcon 9 rocket on the launchpad.

Crew Dragon sits in place of the rocket’s nose cone at the top. After launching the spacecraft on its way, the large lower portion of Falcon 9, known as the “booster,” will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and attempt to land on the company’s drone ship in the ocean. SpaceX has landed its Falcon 9 rocket boosters 84 times.

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