Elon Musk's SpaceX to ferry all-civilian crew led by this billionaire into orbit

By Livemint, Vivek Punj
Jared Isaacman, founder and chief executive officer of Shift4 Payments, has paid a presumably exorbitant amount to Elon Musks SpaceX for a trip to orbit. (AFP)

Elon Musk-led SpaceX is getting ready launch a historic trip to orbit with the first ever all-civilian crew led by a billionaire entrepreneur. The astro-tourist team will board SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for a three-day trip into space starting Wednesday next week.

Jared Isaacman, founder and chief executive of US-based e-commerce firm Shift4 Payments, will lead three fellow novice astronauts on the first trip solely manned by civilians.

The team will begin its journey with blast-off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, which will end with splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Crew Dragon capsule to be used for this extraterrestrial voyage will strapped to one of SpaceX's reusable Falcon 9 rockets, with a 24-hour targeted launch window that opens at 8 PM EDT on Wednesday. This window will be narrowed, or possibly altered, a few days before depending on weather, a Reuters report said.

Christened Inspiration4, the orbital journey has been planned by Isaacman primarily to raise awareness and support for one of his favorite causes, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a leading pediatric cancer center. He has pledged $100 million personally to the institute.

The 38-year-old tech billionaire has paid an unspecified but presumably exorbitant amount to SpaceX owner Elon Musk to fly himself and three specially selected travel mates into orbit, Reuters reported.

Rival space flight companies Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin recently carried out their maiden astro-tourism missions with their respective founding executives - billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos.

But those two high-profile flights were suborbital in scale, sending their crews of citizen astronauts to space and back in a matter of minutes. The SpaceX flight is designed to carry its four passengers where no all-civilian crew has gone before - into Earth orbit.

Like Blue Origin, the 20-story-tall SpaceX launch vehicle and crew capsule will take off vertically from a launch pad on a flight directed entirely from the ground. Branson's suborbital rocket plane, by contrast, had two highly trained pilots at the controls as it carried its four rear-seat passengers 50 miles high.

The Inspiration4 crew will have no part to play in operating their spacecraft, despite some largely honorary titles, though two members - Isaacman and geoscientist Sian Proctor - are licensed pilots.

Isaacman is qualified to fly commercial and military jets and has assumed the role of mission “commander" for Inspiration4. Proctor, 51, once a NASA astronaut candidate herself, has been designated as the mission “pilot". She was selected to join the team through an online contest run by Shift4 Payments.

The rest of the crew comprises “chief medical officer" Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a bone cancer survivor turned St. Jude physicians' assistant, and mission “specialist" Chris Sembroski, 42, a US Air Force veteran and aerospace data engineer. He won a seat in a sweepstake that drew 72,000 applicants and has raised over $100 million in St. Jude donations.

The four crewmates have spent the past five months undergoing rigorous preparations, including altitude fitness, centrifuge (G-force), microgravity and simulator training, emergency drills, classroom work and medical exams.

Inspiration4 officials stress that the mission is more than a joyride. Once in orbit, the crew will perform medical experiments with “potential applications for human health on Earth and during future spaceflights," the group said in its press materials.

A successful mission with all-civilian crew would further help promote commercial space tourism, with several companies vying for wealthy customers willing to pay a small fortune to experience the exhilaration of supersonic flight, weightlessness and the visual spectacle of space. Setting acceptable levels of consumer risk in the inherently dangerous endeavor of rocket travel is also key, and raises a pointed question.

(With Reuters' input)

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