SpaceX's first private flight signals new era in human spaceflight

DALLAS • SpaceX has launched four civilians on a three-day orbital excursion that many see as a harbinger of a new era in human spaceflight.

The flight, dubbed Inspiration4, took off at 8.02pm local time on Wednesday (8.02am yesterday Singapore time) from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and reached an orbiting height of 585km around three hours later.

Inside the Dragon crew capsule are Mr Jared Isaacman, a technology billionaire, and three other United States citizens without specialised astronaut training.

"I really do see this as a renaissance in human space transportation," Mr Phil McAlister, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (Nasa) 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 is the first of several private spaceflights Mr Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp is planning in coming years, with the next scheduled for early next year.

In addition to serving as a proof-of-concept demonstration flight, the mission will also raise US$200 million (S$269 million) in charity for childhood-cancer research.

Beyond the undisclosed sum Mr Isaacman is paying SpaceX for the flight - reported as US$200 million by Time magazine - he has also pledged US$100 million to St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

As the countdown to lift-off neared zero, Mr Isaacman could be heard saying: "Punch it, SpaceX."

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 548km above Earth.

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

Mr Isaacman, 38, founder and chief executive of payment processor Shift4 Payments, assumed the role of mission commander.

Also flying in the capsule is Ms Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a childhood-cancer survivor who works as a physician's assistant at St Jude. She is also the first person to fly to space with a prosthetic device: She has a rod implanted in her left leg as part of her treatment for bone cancer.

Rounding out the crew are Dr Sian Proctor, 51, a geoscience professor in Phoenix and a finalist for the 2009 Nasa astronaut class, and Mr Chris Sembroski, 42, an air force veteran who works as an engineer for Lockheed Martin in Seattle.

SpaceX designed the flight and determined that the crew were trained and fit to go. The four spent about nine months in preparation, including learning about the Dragon's systems, how to intervene during the flight if necessary, and other endeavours such as practising in a centrifuge to withstand high-gravity forces.

They also flew several times in a fleet of former military fighter jets Mr Isaacman owns to become accustomed to G-forces.

Mr Isaacman also mandated a multi-day hike in May, above 3,000m, on Mount Rainier in Washington state.

SpaceX, which ferries Nasa astronauts to and from the International Space Station with the Dragon vehicle, will share data from the mission with the agency, including the capsule's encounters with space debris and radiation, Mr McAlister said.

The Dragon is configured to remain in orbit for a week if needed, Mr Isaacman tweeted on Tuesday.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2021, with the headline 'SpaceX's first private flight signals new era in human spaceflight'. Subscribe