CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA (REUTERS) - A SpaceX rocket ship blasted off from Florida on Wednesday (Sept 15) carrying a billionaire e-commerce executive and three less-wealthy private citizens he chose to join him in the first all-amateur crew spaceflight to orbit Earth.
The quartet of amateur space travellers, led by the American founder and chief executive of e-commerce firm Shift4 Payments Jared Isaacman, lifted off just before sunset from the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral.
A SpaceX webcast of the launch showed Mr Isaacman, 38, and his crewmates - Ms Sian Proctor, 51, Ms Hayley Arceneaux, 29, and Mr Chris Sembroski, 42 - strapped into the pressurised cabin of the gleaming white SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, wearing their helmeted black-and-white flight suits.
Thumbs-up were on display as the capsule streaked into the Florida sky perched atop one of the company's reusable two-stage Falcon 9 rockets. The Crew Dragon capsule, fitted with a special observation dome in place of its usual docking hatch, reached orbit almost 10 minutes after the 8.03pm EDT (8.03am Singapore time on Thursday) blast-off.
The rocket's first-stage booster, after separating from the spacecraft's top half, descended back to Earth and touched down safely on a landing platform on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The ship is affectionately named Just Read The Instructions.
Amid cheers heard in SpaceX's mission-control centre as the spacecraft climbed to nearly 200km above Earth, Mr Isaacman read a statement thanking everyone who made possible a journey "right to the doorstep of an exciting and unexplored frontier, where few have come before and many are about to follow".
"The door is open now, and it's pretty incredible," he said.
Within three hours the capsule had reached its final cruising orbital altitude of just over 585 km - higher than the International Space Station or Hubble Space Telescope, and the furthest any human has flown from Earth since NASA's Apollo moon program ended in 1972, according to SpaceX.
At that height, the Crew Dragon will circle the globe once every 90 minutes at a speed of some 27,360kmh, or roughly 22 times the speed of sound.
The flight, the first crewed mission headed to orbit with no professional astronauts along for the ride, is expected to last about three days from launch to splashdown in the Atlantic, mission officials said.
It marked the debut flight of SpaceX owner Elon Musk's new orbital tourism business, and a leap ahead of competitors likewise offering rides on rocket ships to customers willing to pay a small fortune for the exhilaration - and bragging rights - of spaceflight.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), which had a government-run US monopoly over spaceflight, has embraced the burgeoning commercialisation of rocket travel.
In a Twitter message posted shortly before Wednesday's launch, the space agency said: "#Inspiration4 embodies our vision for a future in which private companies can transport cargo and people to low-Earth orbit. More opportunities to fly = more opportunities for science."
The SpaceX mission is called Inspiration4 and was conceived by Mr Isaacman mainly to raise awareness and support for one of his favourite causes, St Jude Children's Research Hospital, a leading paediatric cancer centre in Memphis, Tennessee.
Mr Isaacman paid an undisclosed sum to fellow billionaire Mr Musk to send himself and his three crewmates aloft. Time magazine has put the ticket price for all four seats at US$200 million (S$268 million).
Rival companies Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin inaugurated their own private-astronaut services this summer, with their respective founding executives, billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, each going along for the ride.
Those suborbital flights, lasting a matter of minutes, were short hops compared with Inspiration4's spaceflight profile.
SpaceX already ranks as the most well-established player in the burgeoning constellation of commercial rocket ventures, having launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station for Nasa. Two of its Dragon capsules are docked there already.
The Inspiration4 crew has no part to play in flying the spacecraft, which will be operated by ground-based flight teams and onboard guidance systems, even though two crew members are licenced pilots.
Mr Isaacman, who can fly commercial and military jets, has assumed the role of mission "commander", while Ms Proctor, a geoscientist and former Nasa astronaut candidate, has been designated as the mission "pilot". Rounding out the crew are "chief medical officer" Arceneaux, a bone cancer survivor turned St Jude physician assistant, and mission "specialist" Sembroski, a US Air Force veteran and aerospace data engineer.
The four crewmates have spent five months in rigorous preparation - in altitude fitness, centrifuge (G-force), microgravity and simulator training, emergency drills, classroom work and medical exams.
Inspiration4 officials have said the mission is more than a joyride.
While in orbit, the crew will perform a series of medical experiments with "potential applications for human health on Earth and during future spaceflights", the group said in media materials.
Biomedical data and biological samples, including ultrasound scans, will be collected from crew members before, during and after the flight.
Ms Arceneaux is overseeing the onboard medical experiments. She made history as the youngest American launched into space and the youngest among just over 550 humans to reach Earth orbit thus far, according to SpaceX.