First all-civilian space crew set to blast off on SpaceX rocket

It will be the first time in 60 years of human spaceflight that no professional astronaut is aboard an orbit-bound rocket.

From left, Hayley Arceneaux, Chris Sembroski, Jared Isaacman and Sian Proctor float during a zero-gravity flight out of Las Vegas, Nevada in the United States - a flight designed to prepare them for their upcoming trip into space aboard SpaceX's commercial spacecraft [File: John Kraus/Inspiration4 via AP]

SpaceX aimed to blast a billionaire into orbit Wednesday night with his two contest winners and a healthcare worker who survived childhood cancer.

It’s the first chartered passenger flight for Elon Musk’s SpaceX and a big step in space tourism by a private company.

“It blows me away, honestly,” SpaceX director Benji Reed said on the eve of launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the United States. “It gives me goose bumps even right now to talk about it.”

The Pennsylvania entrepreneur who is picking up the tab — Jared Isaacman — won’t say how much he paid.

After blasting off sometime after 8:02pm local time Wednesday (00:02 GMT), Isaacman and his fellow passengers will spend three days orbiting Earth at an unusually high altitude of 575km (357 miles) — 160km (100 miles) higher than the International Space Station — before splashing down off the Florida coast this weekend.

From left, Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman and Hayley Arceneaux sit in the SpaceX Dragon capsule at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the United States during a dress rehearsal for Wednesday’s launch [File: SpaceX via AP]

In July, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos launched aboard their own rockets to spur ticket sales.

Their flights barely skimmed space, though, and lasted just minutes.

Isaacman and the others — St Jude Children’s Research Hospital physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux and sweepstake winners Chris Sembroski, a data engineer, and Sian Proctor, a community college educator — said on the eve of launch that they had few if any last-minute jitters.

It will be the first time in 60 years of human spaceflight that no professional astronaut is aboard an orbit-bound rocket.

The passengers’ fully automated capsule has already been in orbit: It was used for SpaceX’s second astronaut flight for NASA to the space station.

Photographers set up remote cameras near a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sitting on Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A on September 15 in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the US [AP Photo/Chris O’Meara]

The only significant change to the capsule, according to Reed, is the large domed window at the top in place of the usual space station docking mechanisms.

Isaacman — founder of a payment-processing company and an accomplished pilot — said SpaceX CEO Musk has assured him “the entire leadership team is solely focused on this mission and is very confident.”

He added: “That obviously inspires a lot of confidence in us as well.”

Musk flew in for the launch, as did hundreds of SpaceX workers and representatives of St Jude hospital.

Isaacman is using the flight to try to raise $200m for St Jude, half of that coming from his own pockets.

While NASA has no role in the voyage, its managers and astronauts are rooting for the flight, dubbed Inspiration4.

“To me, the more people involved in it, whether private or government, the better, ” said NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, who is nearing the end of his six-month space station stay.

Source: AP