A billionaire e-commerce executive and three less-wealthy private citizens chosen to join him blasted off from Florida on Wednesday aboard a SpaceX rocket ship and soared into orbit, the first all-civilian crew ever to circle the Earth from space.
The quartet of amateur astronauts, led by the American founder and chief executive of financial services firm Shift4 Payments Inc, Jared Isaacman, lifted off just before sunset from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.
A SpaceX webcast of the launch showed Isaacman, 38, and his crewmates – Sian Proctor, 51, Hayley Arceneaux, 29, and Chris Sembroski, 42 – strapped into the pressurized cabin of their 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 dark sky, perched atop one of SpaceX’s reusable two-stage Falcon 9 rockets. The Crew Dragon, fitted with a special observation dome in place of its usual docking hatch, reached orbit almost 10 minutes after the 8:03 p.m. EDT blastoff.
The rocket’s first-stage booster, after separating from the spacecraft’s top half, flew itself back to Earth and touched down safely on a landing platform floating in the Atlantic on a drone ship whimsically named Just Read the Instructions
Amid cheers heard in SpaceX’s mission-control center as the spacecraft climbed to nearly 125 miles (200 km) above Earth, Isaacman read a statement thanking those 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 363 miles (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 was circling the globe once every 90 minutes at a speed of some 17,000 miles per hour (27,360 kph), or roughly 22 times the speed of sound.
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The flight, representing the first crewed mission to orbit with no professional astronauts, is expected to last about three days from launch to splashdown in the Atlantic, mission officials said.
It also 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.
NASA, which exercised a government-run U.S. monopoly over spaceflight for decades, has embraced the nascent commercialization 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.”
Isaacman paid an undisclosed sum to fellow billionaire Musk to send himself and his three crewmates aloft. Time magazine has put the ticket price for all four seats at $200 million.
The mission, called Inspiration4, was conceived by Isaacman mainly to raise awareness and donations for one of his favorite causes, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a pediatric cancer center in Memphis, Tennessee.