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SpaceX makes history with first all-civilian spaceflight

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SpaceX has made history. Again.

The spaceflight company founded by the billionaire Elon Musk launched four private  passengers into orbit Wednesday on the first mission to space with an all-civilian crew.

A reusable Falcon 9 rocket carrying Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old tech entrepreneur, Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old geoscientist, Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old aerospace data engineer, and Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant, lifted off shortly after 8 p.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The four-person crew will now spend three days in orbit around Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

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It’s not the first time that private passengers have paid to fly in space, but the so-called Inspiration4 mission is the first expedition into orbit without any professional astronauts on board. The historic flight represents the next stage in the evolution of human spaceflight, as access to the cosmos expands beyond just governments and their space agencies.

“The door is wide open,” Isaacman said as he and his crew members reached space.

SpaceX’s rocket roared into the night sky from the same launch pad as NASA’s Apollo moon missions, as well as the first and last space shuttle flights. During their ascent into orbit, the crew members celebrated excitedly and flashed thumbs-up signs as they cleared each major milestone.

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Isaacman, the founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, a Pennsylvania-based payment processing company, paid an unspecified amount for the three-day joyride in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. The Inspiration4 mission is part of a charity initiative to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In addition to giving $100 million to St. Jude, Isaacman donated the three other seats on the Inspiration4 flight to his crew members.

“This dream began 10 months ago,” Isaacman said Tuesday in a preflight briefing. “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.”

The Crew Dragon spacecraft will circle the planet 15 times each day from an altitude of nearly 360 miles, higher than the current orbits of the space station and the Hubble Space Telescope, according to SpaceX.

The Inspiration4 mission will resemble SpaceX’s routine flights to the International Space Station, except this time, the capsule will not dock at the orbiting lab. As such, the company added a new glass dome to the top of the spacecraft for 360-degree views.

NASA was quick to congratulate the Inspiration4 team Wednesday, tweeting that the launch “represents a significant milestone in the quest to make space for everybody.”

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The successful launch of the Inspiration4 mission is a key milestone for SpaceX and a boon for the burgeoning space tourism industry. Two months ago, rival billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson both launched to the edge of space in vehicles developed by their own respective aerospace companies. Though both flights over the summer were suborbital jaunts, both Bezos’ Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic are planning to offer orbital joyrides for space tourists in the future.

These pioneering flights — for now, limited to those who can afford to spend millions of dollars on a ticket — could accelerate the expansion of private spaceflight, making trips to space more regular, and eventually more affordable.

The first space tourist, American multimillionaire Dennis Tito, launched to the International Space Station on an eight-day expedition in 2001. Tito reportedly paid $20 million to fly to the orbiting outpost aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Until now, only seven civilians, including Tito, had paid to fly in space.

Arceneaux, a bone cancer survivor now works  at St. Jude; Sembroski is a U.S. Air Force veteran; and Proctor is a licensed pilot and former NASA astronaut candidate.

Proctor secured her ticket to space through an online contest conducted by Shift4 Payments and Sembroski won his seat in a charity drive to raise money for St. Jude. 

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The crew members have called their journey a “humanitarian mission,” and have spoken about how they hope to inspire people around the world. 

“I want to thank everyone for all the support, encouragement, and love,” Arceneaux tweeted Wednesday, mere hours before the launch. “And thank you to @StJude for being the reason I’m here today. This is for everyone who’s ever been through something difficult, and I know we all have. Hold onto hope because there WILL be better days.”

The Inspiration4 mission is just the start of SpaceX’s ambitions to launch paying customers into orbit. Earlier this year, the company announced that the first private space station crew, led by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, will launch to the orbiting lab in early 2022. López-Alegría will be joined by three men who are each paying $55 million to spend eight days at the space station.

In 2018, SpaceX also said Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, founder and CEO of the fashion retailer Zozo, would be the first private passenger to fly around the moon on a mission that is planned for sometime in 2023.

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