Watch Live: SpaceX launching all-civilian crew on Inspiration4 mission

An all-civilian crew braced for blastoff Wednesday evening atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for the first privately funded, non-government trip to orbit the Earth. The three-day Inspiration4 mission is devoted to raising $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Billionaire Jared Isaacman, who chartered the mission, will be joined by Chris Sembroski, an aerospace engineer; Sian Proctor, an artist-educator who will become only the fourth Black woman to fly in space; and Hayley Arceneaux, a childhood cancer survivor who was treated at St. Jude and now works at the hospital. At age 29, Arceneaux will be the youngest American to fly in space.

Blastoff from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center is targeted for 8:02 p.m. EDT, kicking off a 12-minute climb to a 360-mile-high orbit, 100 miles above the International Space Station. It’s the highest anyone will have flown since the last shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009.

From that lofty perch, Isaacman and his Inspiration4 crewmates will enjoy unrivaled 360-degree views of Earth and deep space through a clear, custom-built dome, or cupola, in the nose of the capsule that has replaced the docking mechanism used for NASA flights to the space station.

The Inspiration4 crew, checking out their SpaceX pressure suits while visiting the Crew Dragon capsule that will carry them into space on the first all-civilian flight to orbit. Inspiration4

The fully automated flight will mark SpaceX’s 125th Falcon 9 launch, its 22nd so far this year and its fourth piloted Crew Dragon mission. 

The capsule is equipped with a “full envelope” abort system to instantly propel the spacecraft away from a malfunctioning booster, resulting in an emergency splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX did not provide details about its crew rescue plans, but says adequate safeguards are in place.

Scott “Kidd” Poteet, an Inspiration4 mission director and former Air Force Thunderbirds pilot, said Isaacman and company are as prepared as any professional astronauts.

“This training has made them 100 percent prepared for any contingency that they’re going to experience on orbit,” he said.

“They have gone through six months of the same training that any NASA astronaut would” including centrifuge runs, rides in the fighter jets Isaacman flies as a hobby, months of classroom study and a 30-hour practice run in a Crew Dragon simulator.

Asked if anyone had any trepidation about riding a rocket to space, Isaacman said SpaceX founder Elon Musk gave the crew “his assurances that the entire leadership team is solely focused on this mission and is very confident. And that obviously inspires a lot of confidence for us as well. But no jitters, excited to get going.”

Added Arceneaux: “Any jitters are the good kind.”

Meet first all-civilian crew to orbit Earth 05:45

While billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos made headlines earlier this summer when they spent a few minutes in weightlessness during up-and-down sub-orbital flights, the Inspiration4 crew will spend three days orbiting the Earth before returning to splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean Saturday night.

Isaacman said the flight marked an “inspiring” first step toward opening up the high frontier to civilian use.

“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,” he said.

That included “the largest fundraising effort in the history of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, acknowledging the real responsibilities we have here on Earth in order to earn the right to make progress up in space,” he said. “And I feel like we’re well on our way to achieving that objective.”

The crew plans an in-flight event with patients at St. Jude and will carry out a battery of medical tests and experiments throughout the mission, including use of an ultrasound device to help measure headward fluid shifts caused by the onset of weightlessness.

Fluid shifts, interactions with the neuro-vestibular, or balance, system and other reactions trigger space motion sickness in about half the astronauts who fly in space, an uncomfortable malady that typically fades away after two to three days as the body adapts to the new environment.

“Space sickness is one of the interesting things that this mission is going to explore, just like all the NASA missions that have gone before,” said Todd Ericson, a former Air Force test pilot who is helping manage the Inspiration4 mission for Isaacman.

“Each person reacts differently,” he said. “Fighter pilots get as sick as non fighter pilots and vice versa. The medical team at SpaceX has a lot of experience in this area … they’ve got a regimen in place to minimize that and then treat it if it actually gets severe.”