SpaceX has launched a billionaire-funded crew of space tourists into orbit – the first civilian mission of its kind

Inspiration4 crew members pose in spacesuits in front of grey wall side-by-side image with falcon 9 rocket launches at night
The Inspiration4 crew lifted off aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on September 15, 2021. Inspiration4/John Kraus; NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

A SpaceX rocket just screamed into the skies above Cape Canaveral, Florida, lifting something no orbital rocket ever had before: a spaceship filled with amateurs.

Regular people and wealthy tourists have launched into Earth’s orbit before, but always accompanied by professional astronauts. All four people who lifted off aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at 8:02 p.m. ET on Wednesday are civilians with non-astronaut day jobs. They’re a billionaire high-school dropout, a geoscientist, a physician-assistant, and an engineer.

The group has been training for a little over five months. Now they’re in Earth’s orbit, where they’ll drift for three days, venturing farther from our planet than any human has since 2009. Their mission is called Inspiration4.

The group launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, but otherwise the government agency has nothing to do with this.

Billionaire Jared Isaacman chartered the flight from SpaceX and is both footing the bill and commanding the company’s Crew Dragon spaceship. He gave the other three seats to Dr. Sian Proctor, a geoscientist who serves as an analogue astronaut in simulations of long-term Mars missions; Hayley Arceneaux, who survived bone cancer as a child and now works at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; and Chris Sembroski, an Air Force veteran who works for Lockheed Martin.

“I can’t express enough how appreciative we are of this amazing opportunity, we know that the four of us are about to have an experience that only about 600 or so had before us,” Isaacman said in a press conference on Tuesday. “We’re very focused on making sure that we give back every bit of that time that we get on orbit for the people and the causes that matter most to us.”

Inspiration4 crew poses in front of falcon 9 rocket that's laying sideways on runway at night
The Inspiration4 crew poses in front of the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spaceship that will launch them into space. Left to right: Chris Sembroski, Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, and Sian Proctor. Inspiration4/John Kraus

Through the flight, Isaacman aims to raise a total of $US200 ($AU272) million for St. Jude for pediatric-cancer research by asking for donations online and auctioning items the crew is taking to space. That’s in addition to $US100 ($AU136) million he’s already donated himself.

“There are real problems and real obligations we have to pay attention to here on Earth in order to earn the right to make progress for tomorrow,” Isaacman said.

After liftoff, the Falcon 9 rocket carried the spaceship close to orbit, then the rocket’s booster detached and fell back to Earth, landing on a drone ship at sea to fly again another day. After that, the rocket’s upper stage gave the Crew Dragon a final push before it, too, broke away.

That left the Crew Dragon and its passengers drifting above our planet 13 minutes after liftoff. The spaceship’s cabin – where the four crew members will spend the next three days – has about as much room as a walk-in closet.

Now that they’re in orbit, the group can strip off their spacesuits. They plan to eat cold pizza for dinner.

Science, art, and views from 355 miles (571km) above Earth

Crew dragon spaceship above earth with glass dome cupola beneath nosecone
An illustration of ‘s Crew Dragon spaceship with a glass dome ‘cupola’ at its nose. SpaceX

Since Inspiration4 isn’t going to the space station, SpaceX replaced the port the spaceship usually uses for docking with a rounded window – a cupola designed to maximize the spaceship passengers’ views of Earth.

While they’re in orbit, as high as 355 miles (571km) up, the crew will enjoy 15 sunrises and sunsets each day.

To pass the time, they plan to collect data for research about how spaceflight affects the human body. Since they’re going so high, they’ll be exposed to more radiation than astronauts on the space station, which orbits at an altitude of about 250 miles (402km). Data about how that affects the passengers’ bodies could inform research and planning related to longer-term human spaceflight to places like the moon and Mars.

So Isaacman, Proctor, Arceneaux, and Sembroski will take each other’s vitals, draw blood samples, scan their organs with an ultrasound device, and take cognitive tests on a tablet.

They’ll also carve out time for fun. Sembroski brought a ukulele to play. Proctor brought paints and markers.

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 NASA 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.