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SpaceX announces first-ever space flight crewed entirely by civilians

By Benjamin Bullard
SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule

Making good on a long-held dream of founder Elon Musk, SpaceX is heading into orbit later this year with humanity’s first-ever flight crew made up entirely of space tourists — otherwise known as civilians.

No trained astronauts will be aboard when the SpaceX Crew Dragon carries its 4-person volunteer crew into space sometime in the 4th quarter of 2021. Instead, reports NBC News, the first all-civilian flight will be led by someone without a lifetime’s worth of astronaut training: Jared Isaacman, founder and CEO of Pennsylvania-based payment processing company Shift4 Payments.

The three remaining members of the crew haven’t been announced yet, but the seats will reportedly be taken by people affiliated with the mission’s associated fundraising drive for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Isaacman reportedly already has donated $100 million to St. Jude, and is planning to help pick “crewmembers who will be specially selected for the humanitarian flight.”

Dubbed “Inspiration4,” the mission will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, and will orbit the Earth “once every 90 minutes along a customized flight path” before returning for re-entry and splashdown off the Florida coast. No timetable for the duration of the flight has been revealed, but the trip is expected to last for several days.

Isaacman does have both commercial and military pilot training in his background, but piloting a near-Earth orbit vehicle — even one as automated and sophisticated as the Dragon — is a whole different matter. “I appreciate this tremendous responsibility that comes with commanding this mission and I want to use this historic moment to inspire humanity while helping to end childhood cancer here on Earth,” Isaacman said in a reported statement, adding that taking off as a civilian marks “the realization of a lifelong dream and a step towards a future in which anyone can venture out and explore the stars.”

To round out the crew, SpaceX and Isaacman will select one St. Jude ambassador, along with a “member of the public” chosen during a charity drive this month. The last seat will go to a fellow entrepreneur, with Isaacman’s company holding a promotional campaign through February to award the coveted final slot to a space traveler who “utilizes the new Shift4Shop eCommerce platform, which empowers entrepreneurs to build and grow successful eCommerce businesses online.”

The all-civilian flight will mark a huge milestone for the upstart, private sector-driven space tourism industry, while piggybacking off the flightworthy capabilities of the Dragon itself. The Crew Dragon configuration of the multipurpose capsule made private-sector spacefaring history last spring, ferrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. In November, the Dragon again shuttled an astronaut crew to the ISS, this time with 4 people aboard.