SpaceX launches Inspiration-4 mission with all-civilian crew

In the end, the Inspiration4 crew’s camping trip up Mt. Rainier’s side in April may have done more than anything else to prepare them for tonight’s successful launch into Earth orbit from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 8:02 p.m. ET. Even the day before the launch, at a press conference scheduled for T-minus 27 hours, they were still talking about the experience and what it had taught them.

Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the first person to fly in space with a prosthetic—a rod in place of her left femur, which she lost to childhood cancer—described the hike as the most difficult and transformative part of the training, forming powerful bonds among the all-civilian crew members. “It was 10 hours of hiking and three days of camping in tiny tents with four people,” she explained.

Chris Sembroski, 41, an engineer at Lockheed Martin in Everett, Washington, sees the three days the crew will spend in orbit before their Saturday splashdown as nothing more than a continuation of Mr. Rainier’s journey. “It will be like camping in a camper with your three best buddies for three days,” he explained. Sembroski even brought a ukulele for the trip, which he plans to use to perform a song from orbit as part of the mission’s aim of raising $200 million for St. Jude.

But, if this is a camping trip, it started like no other, with a perfect liftoff of the Falcon 9 rocket carrying Inspiration4’s SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on a balmy but breezy Florida evening with temperatures of 81o F under a partly overcast sky. The nine engines on the 230-foot Falcon lighted up at T-0, and the rocket muscled itself off the pad. The first stage burned for 156 seconds, lifting the crew 50 miles above the ground before turning off on time and landing upright on a recovery barge. The second stage then fired, and the crew of Inspiration4 was in orbit little over eight and a half minutes after launch.

The Inspiration4 expedition was the idea of Isaacman, the wealthy CEO of Shift4 Payments, an online payments business, who paid an estimated $50 million for each of the four seats aboard the Dragon. The objective was to launch the first all-civilian, non-professional astronaut team into orbit while also raising funds for St. Jude.

Much of the discussion around the project has centred on the gradual commercialization and, more aspirationally, democratisation of space—the opening of the celestial door to people other than test pilots, rocket jocks, and PhDs. Inspiration4 is, admittedly, a tiny step in that direction. Even yet, it required a deep-pocketed and extremely generous billionaire to make it happen—not an easy model to replicate. But tonight’s launch had compelling appeal—for the crew’s character, the mission’s philanthropic objective, and the lovely and seamless liftoff on a soft Florida night. Inspiration4 may inspire more similar trips in the future, but for now, this one suffices.

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