SpaceX’s first private flight on Wednesday night streaked into orbit with two contest winners, a healthcare worker and their rich sponsor, in the most ambitious leap yet in space tourism.
It was the first time a spacecraft circled Earth with an all-amateur crew and no professional astronauts.
“Punch it, SpaceX,” the flight’s billionaire leader, Jared Isaacman, said moments before liftoff.
The Dragon capsule’s two men and two women are to spend three days going around the planet from an unusually high orbit — 160km higher than the International Space Station — before splashing down off the Florida coast this weekend.
It is SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s first entry in the competition for space tourism dollars.
Isaacman is the third billionaire to launch this summer, following the brief space-skimming flights by Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos in July.
Only 38, Isaacman made his fortune from a payment-processing company he started in his teens.
Joining Isaacman on the trip, dubbed Inspiration4, is Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a childhood bone cancer survivor who works as a physician assistant at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where she was treated.
Isaacman has pledged US$100 million to the hospital and is seeking another US$100 million in donations.
Arceneaux became the youngest American in space and the first person in space with a prosthesis, a titanium rod in her left leg.
Also along for the ride: sweepstakes winners Chris Sembroski, 42, a data engineer in Everett, Washington, and Sian Proctor, 51, a community college educator in Tempe, Arizona.
Once opposed to space tourism, NASA is a supporter.
“Low-Earth orbit is now more accessible for more people to experience the wonders of space,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson wrote on Twitter.
He was a US representative when he hitched a ride on a space shuttle decades earlier.
The recycled Falcon rocket soared from the same Kennedy Space Center pad used by the company’s three previous astronaut flights for NASA.
This time, the Dragon capsule aimed for an altitude of 575km, just beyond the Hubble Space Telescope.
A pilot, Isaacman persuaded SpaceX to take the fully automated capsule higher than it has ever been. Initially reluctant because of the increased radiation exposure and other risks, SpaceX agreed after a safety review.
“Now I just wish we pushed them to go higher,” Isaacman told reporters on the eve of the flight. “If we’re going to go to the moon again and we’re going to go to Mars and beyond, then we’ve got to get a little outside of our comfort zone and take the next step in that direction.”
Isaacman, whose Shift4 Payments company is based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, is picking up the entire tab for the flight, but would not say how many millions he paid.
He and others contend those big price tags will eventually lower the cost.
“Yes, today you must have and be willing to part with a large amount of cash to buy yourself a trip to space,” said Explorers Club president Richard Garriott, a NASA astronaut’s son who paid the Russians for a space station trip more than a decade ago. “But this is the only way we can get the price down and expand access, just as it has been with other industries before it.”
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