On Wednesday night, the SpaceX mission Inspiration4, the first all-private orbital launch, took off from Florida, carrying four individuals commanded by billionaire and pilot Jared Isaacman.
At 8:02 p.m. EDT, the Falcon 9 rocket launched the Crew Dragon capsule into a largely clear night sky from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center.
“The Inspiration 4 has lifted off and is already in orbit around the Earth,” a SpaceX commentator announced during a live broadcast.
Cheers erupted from several groups gathered at NASA buildings around the property. A last bit of sunlight lit up the rocket’s contrail briefly as it ascended.
The crew could be seen on camera waving and clasping hands. SpaceX’s first-stage booster returned successfully to land on a barge in the Atlantic, and the second stage separated successfully, leaving the capsule alone in space.
As it reached zero gravity, a stuffed animal brought as a mascot floated through the cabin. About 19 minutes after launch, SpaceX said the rocket’s nose cone had opened, exposing a large cupola window so the crew could see Earth and space clearly.
“The door is wide open and the view is spectacular,” Isaacman said in a message to mission control, referring metaphorically to access to space.
While other private missions have gone into space briefly, Inspiration4 will be the first to orbit the Earth — flying at more that 265 miles high and making 15 revolutions of the Earth each day.
The crew members signed their names in black permanent marker in the white room leading into the capsule before they entered — next to a SpaceX logo rather than near the NASA logo where astronauts sign.
The flight is Isaacman’s brainchild as his personal record-breaking adventure and a fundraiser for one of his favorite charities, Memphis-based St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
As part of his vision to inspire others, Isaacman chose civilians for the crew: childhood cancer survivor and physician assistant Haley Arceneaux, 29, who is the mission medical officer; educator, artist and pilot Sian Proctor, 51; and engineer Chris Sembroski, 42.
The crew wore SpaceX’s white flight suits and rode to the pad in white Tesla cars, a nod to SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s other big company. Arceneaux entered the capsule first before launch, sitting in Seat 1 next to one of Dragon’s windows.
“Everyone is fully prepared … and confident they have the skills necessary to successfully fly and return,” Scott “Kidd” Poteet, the mission director, told UPI in an interview Tuesday.
“It’s been many long hours of training in SpaceX simulators or here at Kennedy Space Center to know the capsule, how it functions and how to splash down in the ocean.”
The exact length of the mission will be determined by spacecraft function and weather in splashdown regions near Florida in the Atlantic Ocean and northern Gulf of Mexico. Three days is the target.
A top SpaceX official made a full-throated endorsement of crew readiness in a press conference Tuesday.
“They’ve climbed Mount Rainier together. And there’ve been a lot of jet fighter flights,” SpaceX’s Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight, said of the crew training regimen.
“Our mission control team has done 12-hour and 30-hour simulations to make sure they’re ready to go.”
The days in orbit are to be filled with medical experiments, Arceneaux said during the press conference.
“We’re going to collect a lot of swabs to learn about the [bacteria] microbiome and how that changes in space and we’re going to perform ultrasound exams to evaluate fluid shifts in microgravity, as well as performing some cognitive tests and studying radiation effects,” Arceneaux said.
Proctor noted that she will be the first Black woman as designated pilot on an orbital space mission. She is not expected to actually assume control of the craft, as it is completely automated except for emergencies.
“I have this opportunity to not only accomplish my dream, but also inspire … the next generation of women of color and girls of color,” she said.
Proctor and the team received a call from former first lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday in recognition of the history-making launch.
“We had a very nice conversation that will stay with me the rest of my life because she inspires me,” Proctor said.
The Dragon capsule versions of which have carried astronauts to the International Space Station three times, has been modified to accommodate the cupola.
“The cupola will be the largest ever single-structure viewing port in space,” mission director Poteet said. “That view is going to be unlike any other. I mean it’s an amazing feature. SpaceX plans to provide images from space the likes of which nobody has ever seen.”
Support teams work around the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft shortly after it landed with NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi aboard in the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City, Fla., on Sunday. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA