Inspiration4: SpaceX makes history by launching an all-civilian crew into space without an astronaut on board

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CAP CANAVERAL, Fla .– SpaceX’s first private flight entered orbit Wednesday night with two winners of the competition, a healthcare worker and their wealthy sponsor, the most ambitious leap to date in space tourism.

It was the first time that a spacecraft had circled the Earth with an entirely amateur crew and no professional astronaut.

“Hit him, SpaceX!” billionaire flight leader Jared Isaacman urged moments before takeoff.

The two men and two women of the Dragon capsule plan to spend three days circling the planet from an unusually high orbit – 160 kilometers higher than the International Space Station – before landing off the coast of Florida this weekend.

WATCH: SpaceX Dragon launches into space

This is the first time SpaceX founder Elon Musk has entered the Space Tourism Dollars contest.

Isaacman is the third billionaire to launch this summer, following brief skimming flights from Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos in July. At just 38, Isaacman made a fortune in a payment processing business he started as a teenager.

Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a childhood bone cancer survivor who works as a medical assistant where she was treated – St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, joins Isaacman on the trip dubbed Inspiration4. Isaacman has pledged $ 100 million out of his own pocket to the hospital and is seeking an additional $ 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 in the game: contest winners Chris Sembroski, 42, a data engineer in Everett, Wash., And Sian Proctor, 51, a community college teacher in Tempe, Arizona.

Once opposed to space tourism, NASA is now a supporter. “Low Earth orbit is now more accessible so more people can experience the wonders of space,” tweeted NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Congressman, when hitchhiking in a shuttle space decades ago.

The recycled Falcon rocket flew from the same Kennedy Space Center pad used by the company’s three previous astronaut flights for NASA. But this time, the Dragon capsule was aiming for an altitude of 357 miles (575 kilometers), just beyond the Hubble Space Telescope.

Across the country, SpaceX employees at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., Cheered at every milestone of the flight, including when the first-stage booster landed vertically on an ocean platform. French astronaut Thomas Pesquet rooted from the space station on Twitter: “It doesn’t matter whether you are a professional or not, when you are strapped to a rocket and launch into space, we have something in common. the best of, well, space out. “

Isaacman noted upon reaching orbit that few people have been to space – less than 600 over 60 years. But he added: “Many are about to follow. The door is opening now and it’s pretty amazing.”

Their capsule has already been in orbit: it was used for SpaceX’s second astronaut flight for NASA to the space station. The only significant change is the large domed window at the top in place of the usual space station docking mechanisms.

An accomplished pilot, Isaacman persuaded SpaceX to take the fully automated Dragon capsule higher than it has ever been. Initially reluctant due to the increased radiation exposure and other risks, SpaceX agreed after a safety review.

“Now I just wish we would push them to go higher,” Isaacman told reporters the day before the flight. “If we’re going to the moon again and we’re going to Mars and beyond, then we have to step out of our comfort zone a little bit and take the next step in that direction.”

Isaacman, whose Shift4 Payments company is based in Allentown, Pa., Takes the entire bill for the theft, but won’t say how many millions he paid. He and others argue that these big prices will ultimately reduce the cost.

“Yes, today you have to have and be ready to part with a large sum of money to buy yourself a trip to space,” said Explorers’ Club president Richard Garriott, son of a NASA astronaut who paid the Russians for a trip to the space station more than a decade ago. “But that’s the only way to lower prices and expand access, as has been the case with other industries before it.

Although the capsule is automated, the four Dragon pilots spent six months training for the flight to cope with any emergency. This training included flights of centrifuges and fighter jets, launch and re-entry exercises in SpaceX’s capsule simulator, and a grueling hike on Washington’s Mount Rainier in the snow.

Four hours before takeoff, the four met Musk before exiting SpaceX’s massive rocket hangar, waving and blowing kisses at their families and company employees, before being whisked away in their stylish jumpsuits. white flight. Once on the launch pad, they posed for photos and banged their gloved fists, before taking the elevator. Proctor danced as she walked over to the hatch.

Unlike NASA missions, the public will not be able to listen to or watch events unfold in real time. Arceneaux is hoping to connect with patients in St. Jude, but the conversation will not be broadcast live.

SpaceX’s next private trip, early next year, will see a retired NASA astronaut escort three wealthy businessmen to the space station for a week-long visit. The Russians are launching a Japanese actress, director and mogul to the space station in the coming months.

“One day NASA astronauts will be the exception, not the rule,” said Mason Peck of Cornell University, an engineering professor who was NASA’s chief technologist nearly ten years ago. “But they will likely continue to be the trailblazers that the rest of us will follow.”

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