SpaceX is about to send its first crew of private citizens to space

Four people are set to launch to space Wednesday night aboard a SpaceX capsule, and none of them are professional astronauts. Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist, booked the Crew Dragon capsule last year and picked three normal folks to ride with him. It will be the first completely private mission to orbit.

Dubbed Inspiration 4, the mission is a multimillion-dollar fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Hospital and — like a lot of recent flights to space these days — an effort to convince those watching from the ground that space won’t always be exclusive to government officials and the ultra-wealthy. Isaacman’s crew includes Hayley Arceneaux, a cancer survivor and St. Jude physician assistant; Sian Proctor, a geology professor and former NASA astronaut candidate; and Christopher Sembroski, a data engineer at Lockheed Martin.

The Inspiration 4 crew is slated to launch Wednesday at 8:02 PM ET atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, buckled inside the same Crew Dragon capsule that nearly a year ago sent a four-person crew of government astronauts to the International Space Station and back. This mission’s destination is about 80 miles higher than the ISS. In orbit, they’ll view Earth through two windows and a new glass dome that was added to the top of the capsule, where Crew Dragon’s ISS docking door was. The crew will reenter the atmosphere after three days, depending on the weather around Florida, and splash down in the Atlantic ocean. SpaceX recovery teams will likely meet up with the capsule, hoist it onto a ship, extract the crew, and bring them ashore.

Isaacman, a trained pilot and the founder of a payment processing company, is the commander of the flight. He has said he wanted to arrange a diverse crew of passengers who weren’t billionaires. He paid for all four seats on Crew Dragon, and dropped the first $100 million of a $200 million fundraiser for St. Jude, a nonprofit research facility and hospital that provides free care to children with cancer. Isaacman reserved two of the seats for St. Jude — one would go to the winner of a fundraising campaign and the other would go to Arceneaux, who works at St. Jude as a physician assistant in Memphis, Tennessee and will serve as the mission’s medical officer.

Arceneaux, 29, is a childhood cancer survivor who will become the first person with a prosthetic body part to launch to space. Metal rods were placed in the part of her left leg that had a cancerous tumor as a child. Sembroski, the Lockheed engineer, will occupy the seat reserved for the winning participant of the St. Jude fundraising campaign. A friend of Sembroski’s won, but couldn’t go on the trip and passed the ticket to him instead.

The fourth seat went to Sian Proctor, the winner of a contest hosted by Shift4, the payment company owned by Isaacman. Contestants had to create a website using Shift4 software and produce a short video of themselves explaining why they wanted to go to space. Proctor, 51, taught geology at a community college in Phoenix, Arizona and will become the fourth Black woman, and the first person from Guam, to go to space. In 2009, she got close to becoming a NASA astronaut as one of nine finalists in a months-long, notoriously difficult selection process.

The crew has been training since March, about seven months before liftoff. That includes centrifuge training to get used to the enormous G-forces of lifting off atop a rocket, a microgravity experience aboard a Zero-G flight, and weeks of training at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California to familiarize the passengers with Crew Dragon.

Besides the passengers’ personal mementos, like family items and school memorabilia, the mission is full of sponsorships: 66 pounds of hops are onboard Crew Dragon that, once returned to Earth, will be used to brew beer by Samuel Adams, “the official beer of Inspiration4,” the mission group said in a press release, adding the brewer made “a maximum $100,000 donation to St. Jude.” All the passengers will wear branded watches, Sembroski will play an onboard ukulele from Martin Guitar, and a bunch of other things on board will get auctioned off once they’re back on the ground as part of the ongoing St. Jude fundraiser.

If all goes as planned, Inspiration 4 will mark the first fully private mission for SpaceX, which developed its Crew Dragon spacecraft as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. That program funded development of two competing space capsules — Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner — to serve as NASA astronauts’ ride to the ISS.