Anstreaked into space atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday on the first privately funded, non-government trip to orbit, a historic three-day flight devoted to million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Strapped in along with billionaire Jared Isaacman, who chartered the mission, were Chris Sembroski, an “everyday” aerospace engineer; Sian Proctor, an artist-educator who will become only the fourth black woman to fly in space; and, a St. Jude cancer survivor who now works at the hospital.
Blastoff from the iconic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center came on time at 8:02 p.m. EDT, kicking off a 12-minute climb to a 360-mile-high orbit 100 miles above the International Space Station. It’s the highest anyone will have flown since the last mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009.
From that lofty perch, Isaacman and his Inspiration4 crewmates will enjoy unrivaled 360-degree views of Earth and deep space through a clear, custom-built dome, or cupola, in the nose of the capsule, which has replaced the docking mechanism used for NASA flights to the space station.
The sky-lighting ascent went smoothly, with the first stage — making its third flight — powering the rocket out of the dense lower atmosphere. The booster’s nine engines shut down two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the stage fell away and the flight continued on the power of the upper stage’s single vacuum-rated engine.
The first stage, meanwhile, flipped around and flew itself back to a pinpoint landing on an off-shore drone ship, chalking up SpaceX’s 92nd successful booster recovery, it’s 69th at sea.
By that point, nine-and-a-half minutes after launch, the second stage and the Crew Dragon capsule were safely in a preliminary orbit with a predicted high point of about 357 miles and a low point of 118. A rocket firing to circularize the orbit was expected later in the evening.
Following the same northeasterly trajectory used for NASA space station missions, the Crew Dragon’s flight computer monitored booster performance and data from scores of sensors throughout the climb to orbit, on the lookout for problems. But the rocket appeared to operate flawlessly.
Despite the inherent risks of spaceflight, Scott “Kidd” Poteet, an Inspiration4 mission director and former Air Force Thunderbirds pilot, said Isaacman and his civilian crewmates were as prepared as any professional astronauts.
“They have gone through six months of the same training that any NASA astronaut would,” he said, including centrifuge runs, rides in fighter jets, months of classroom study and a 30-hour practice run in a Crew Dragon simulator.
Asked if anyone had any trepidation about riding a rocket to space, Isaacman said SpaceX founder Elon Musk gave the crew “his assurances that the entire leadership team is solely focused on this mission and is very confident. And that obviously inspires a lot of confidence for us as well. But no jitters, excited to get going.”
Added Arceneaux: “Any jitters are the good kind.”
While billionairesand made headlines earlier this summer when they spent a few minutes in weightlessness during up-and-down sub-orbital flights, the Inspiration4 crew will spend three days orbiting the Earth before returning to splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean Saturday night.
Isaacman said the flight marked an “inspiring” first step toward opening up the high frontier to civilian use.
“We set out from the start to deliver a very inspiring message, certainly what can be done up in space and the possibilities there, but also what we can accomplish here on Earth,” he said.
That included “the largest fundraising effort in the history of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, acknowledging the real responsibilities we have here on Earth in order to earn the right to make progress up in space,” he said. “And I feel like we’re well on our way to achieving that objective.”
The crew plans an in-flight event with patients at St. Jude and will carry out a battery of medical tests and experiments throughout the mission, including use of an ultrasound device to help measure headward fluid shifts caused by the onset of weightlessness.
Fluid shifts, interactions with the neuro-vestibular, or balance, system and other reactions trigger space motion sickness in about half the astronauts who fly in space, an uncomfortable malady that typically fades away after two to three days as the body adapts to the new environment.
“Space sickness is one of the interesting things that this mission is going to explore, just like all the NASA missions that have gone before,” said Todd Ericson, a former Air Force test pilot who is helping manage the Inspiration4 mission for Isaacman.
“Each person reacts differently,” he said. “Fighter pilots get as sick as non fighter pilots and vice versa. The medical team at SpaceX has a lot of experience in this area … they’ve got a regimen in place to minimize that and then treat it if it actually gets severe.”