Left to Right: Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux
Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has set another aerospace first by launching the first all-civilian crew into orbit. They lifted off inside a Dragon space capsule aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The four members of the Inspiration4 crew helped prove the SpaceX founder’s belief that non-professional astronauts with proper training can safely venture into space.
This was a significant goal for Elon Musk’s vision of sending humans to Mars. While recent efforts by Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos captured fleeting rollercoaster rides into microgravity for a few minutes, the Inspiration4 mission came closer to what the future of private space travel might look like.
A Super Bowl commercial aired in February announced that the first-ever all-civilian orbital space flight would take off this Fall, and that the mission would feature seats available to the public. By donating to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, wanna-be private astronauts would be entered in a raffle to win a slot as a crew member.
The Inspiration4 mission was funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, who sought to fly a crew celebrating diverse values and raise at least $200 million for St. Jude. Isaacman himself donated the first $100 million and he also donated two seats to St. Jude. Hayley Arceneaux, a childhood cancer survivor and a physician assistant at St. Jude, was selected by the hospital to board the flight and she happily accepted. St. Jude raffled the second seat as part of the fundraising campaign.
The four pillars of the Inspiration4 mission were: Leadership, Hope, Generosity, and Prosperity – with each crew member representing one of the pillars.
LEADERSHIP: Jared Isaacman, Crew Commander
Jared Isaacman, 38, is an experienced pilot, aeronautical businessman, and founder of Shift4 Payments. When he was only 13 years old, Jared started a computer repair shop in his parents’ basement. The youngest child in the family, Jared said, “I hated high school … I could not wait to be an adult.” Isaacman dropped out of school at age 16 and got his GED after being offered a full-time job by one of his clients, the owner of a retail payment processing company. While there, he identified inefficiencies in the industry. In response, he developed a new software application to make credit card processing easier, and launched his own platform. In 2011, he received a bachelor’s degree in professional aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Flight-qualified in multiple military jet aircraft, he set a world record for circumnavigating the globe in a light jet, making the flight about 20 hours faster than the previous record of 82 hours. Isaacman also founded Draken International, a provider of contract air services for the military, with a fleet of privately-owned former military fighter jets. His entrepreneurial and aeronautical background made him the ideal civilian to lead this mission.
HOPE: Hayley Arceneaux, Medical Officer
A childhood cancer survivor, Hayley Arceneaux obtained her Physician Assistant degree in 2016 from LSU Health in Shreveport, Louisiana. She works as a Physician Assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the same hospital where she was treated for osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. Hayley became the first person to fly in space with a prosthetic (a titanium implant in her leg), and at age 29 is the youngest American astronaut so far. Ironically, her brother and sister-in-law are aerospace engineers, but she’s the one who got to go to space! Hayley is a fan of Dr. “Bones” McCoy, the Chief Medical Officer in Star Trek: The Original Series, which is fitting!
GENEROSITY: Christopher Sembroski, Aerospace Engineer
Christopher Sembroski, 42, was one of 72,000 entrants in the St. Jude raffle. He did not win the seat himself, but a friend of his did. The anonymous friend transferred his seat to Sembroski, knowing how much it would mean to him. During college, Christopher had volunteered for ProSpace, a nonprofit organization advocating for private spaceflight. He also was a counselor at Space Camp, an educational camp in Huntsville, Alabama which promotes science, technology, engineering, and math to children and teenagers. After college, Sembroski joined the U.S. Air Force as an Electro-Mechanical Technician. He currently works as a data engineer at Lockheed-Martin.
PROSPERITY: Sian Proctor, Spacecraft Pilot
Dr. Sian Proctor, 51, received an MS degree in Geology and later a PhD in Science Education at Arizona State University. She is an “analog astronaut,” a Major in the Civil Air Patrol where she serves as the aerospace education officer for its Arizona Wing, and a geosciences professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix. In addition, she is a poet and space artist with her own art print business. She was selected based on her contest video. Dr. Proctor is the fourth African-American woman to go into space, and the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft. She was born in Guam to a Sperry Univac engineer who worked for NASA at the Guam Remote Ground Terminal during the Apollo era. Dr. Proctor hopes to inspire everyone who’s reaching for their own stars.
The Inspiration4 launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 7:00 p.m. ET on September 15, 2021. SpaceX leases launchpad 39A – the same pad that the Apollo missions used – which SpaceX has since renovated and modernized. There were no professional astronauts aboard the Dragon capsule that orbited 357 miles above the earth – higher than the International Space Station.
The Dragon capsule, the first private spacecraft to take humans to the International Space Station, has already completed 27 launches, including 10 reflown missions and 25 visits to the space station. It is capable of carrying seven passengers and “significant amounts of cargo” to space and back.
After circling the planet some 45 times over three days, the Dragon conducted two burns to drop its altitude from about 350 miles above the Earth’s surface to about 226 miles. At approximately 7:04 p.m., Dragon deployed its parachute system, decelerating from 17,500 mph and safely descending to Earth. The capsule and its crew splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast at 7:07 p.m. ET September 18, 2021.
In addition to raising $210 million for children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases through St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Inspiration4’s mission was to study the human body in space. They performed ultrasounds, took microbe samples, and did a variety of in-flight health experiments (measuring fluid shifts, recording ECG activity, blood oxygen levels, heart rates, etc.).
The study of the effects of spaceflight on human health and performance was done in collaboration with SpaceX, the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine, and investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine. Dr. Proctor didn’t feel well for the first two days, but by the third day she became acclimated to the zero gravity just when it was time to go home!
An alarm sounded during the journey, and it was found to be caused by a toilet malfunction. One key takeaway from the three-day trip in space: zero-gravity bathrooms aren’t ideal whatsoever! Elon Musk promised future upgrades to the spacecraft’s bathroom, as well as the oven and WiFi. All of the crew members said that they had fun floating around in zero gravity, while each of them agreed that looking down at the earth from space as they circled its perimeter every 90 minutes was a life-changing experience.
Media coverage of the event was widely positive due to its charitable focus, duration, and altitude achieved. The Inspiration4 mission was documented as it happened in a five-episode docuseries entitled Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, released on the subscription streaming service Netflix in September 2021. The fifth and final episode aired on September 30th. Watch a replay of the launch below: