Sian Proctor may owe his life to Apollo 11 – literally. Born in Guam – the daughter of an engineer who worked at the local tracking station who helped NASA maintain communications with its moon crews – she was the fourth daughter of a couple she suspects hadn’t planned for so many children, and she came into the world just nine months after Apollo 11 blocked its historic first moon landing.
“I think I was a party kid,” he says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for human spaceflight.”
Proctor herself has a lot to celebrate this year. In September, if all goes according to plan, the 51-year-old geosciences professor at South Mountain University in Phoenix will board a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and launch a rocket into low Earth orbit, spending up to three days in flight before splash the Atlantic ocean. The mission, dubbed Inspiration4, won’t be the first aboard a SpaceX ship to carry the crew; it won’t even be the second or third. Thing want be is the first flight aboard a spacecraft piloted by any country or company to be manned entirely by non-astronauts – four people who until last February did not know they would fly into space, and will now go to a place less than 600 people in the world have never gone before.
“I thought a flight like this was ten years away,” says Proctor. “But it’s now.”
From the beginning, the American astronaut club has been extremely undemocratic. NASA periodically opened its doors to new attendees and you were more than welcome to apply, provided you were a military pilot or engineer or biologist or physicist, of a certain age and fitness and fitness. temperament, be prepared to undergo extensive training over the years before your turn finally came to fly. It was likely that it would never come, because it was likely that you weren’t selected for training in the first place. It was a great system – the one our Armstrong and Aldrins and Grissom and Glenns gave us – but it was also very exclusive.
Earlier this year, Jared Isaacman decided it was time to shake things up – and he was able to make it happen. Isaacman, the 37-year-old billionaire founder of online payment processing provider Shift4 payments, is a private pilot who has always had a desire to go to space. Will and wallet aren’t enough to secure a seat aboard a NASA spacecraft, but SpaceX is a different matter: a private company with a government contract to transport cargo and crew to the International Space Station, but free to sell airline tickets to anyone who wants to in his spare time. Isaacman approached the company in January and bought four seats for an undisclosed sum.
One slot – the commander’s slot – would be his. The question was how to select the other three people who ultimately chose to fly with him, all of whom TIME visited Cape Canaveral this week. Part of the answer, Isaacson decided, would be philanthropy. A longtime supporter of numerous children’s charities (including the Make-a-Wish Foundation), Isaacman turned his attention this time to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. He paid more than $ 5 million for a 30-second commercial during last February’s Super Bowl to announce the Inspiration4 mission and raise money for the hospital. The announcement attracted $ 13 million in donations and Isaacman added his $ 100 million. For her first crew member, she chose Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a medical assistant at St. Jude and a survivor of childhood bone cancer. Arceneaux will be the youngest American to fly into space and the first in any country to soar high with a prosthetic body part: a metal rod in place of the portion of her right femur that she lost due to her illness.
“I’m a little worried about traveling with it, with all those G-forces,” admits Arceneaux. “But I want other people with other prosthetics to fly and someone has to go first.”
One of the remaining two spots was awarded via a contest in which participants designed an online store using Shift4 Payment software and shared their entrepreneurial and spatial aspirations via social media. The other went to the winner of a random drawing among contestants who made a donation to St. Jude. Proctor won the position determined by the design of the online business. The fact that she was chosen was a sweet redemption: she applied to NASA for selection as an astronaut twice before, and in 2009 she made it to the last 47 of 3,500 candidates before being cut.
“At least one of the people chosen in that class hasn’t had the chance to fly yet,” says Proctor. “I could actually go into space before I left if I was selected by NASA.”
The final winner was Chris Sembroski, 41, an Iraq war veteran and engineer at Lockheed Martin in Seattle. Sembroski actually wasn’t the person originally chosen: a close friend of his won the draw and got the call from Isaacman first, but he chose not to attend for personal reasons. He recommended that Sembroski fly in his place and Isaacman agreed.
“Jared called me and told me my friend had won, and then he said, ‘but he decided to let it go and he’s passing it on to you. Congratulations, you are part of Inspiration4, “remembers Sembroski.
The new crew is accelerated into space. No matter the several years NASA astronauts spend training for a mission, the Inspiration4 team will be no more than six months old. Some of their jobs – fitness testing with doctors from the University of California, Los Angeles who work with SpaceX; the centrifuge is in operation at the NASTAR aerospace center in Bensalem, Pa .; long hours spent in Crew Dragon simulators – it’s training stuff for astronauts. Other parts – like camping with Isaacman for three days on the flank of Mount Rainier next week – are particular to this mission.
“I want everyone to know what it’s like to be very, very uncomfortable and push themselves anyway,” says Isaacman. “It helps build trust when other challenges arise.”
The flight itself will also bear the Isaacman mark. At his request, the spacecraft will fly at an altitude of 540 km (335 mi), more than the 410 km at which the space station orbits. “We want to get over the altitude we’re used to,” says Isaacman. “We mean, ‘Let’s stretch out.'” Since Crew Dragon will not be going to the station, SpaceX is removing its docking collar and replacing it with a domed window – to make better use of that more rarefied view.
The crew will do nothing but visit the city in their three days in flight. There will be science experiments to be performed and maintenance work to be done, and Proctor plans to give a university lecture from space. Even then there will be history to be made. The physics of space travel – the dizzying speeds, the heavy loads, and the huge explosive machines needed to make the voyages – will perhaps never make missile flights beyond the atmosphere as routine as flying through it. But space travel can at least become more routine, more egalitarian – a quest not just for humanity’s elite, but for some of us. Inspiration4 is an extraordinary mission, with the paradoxical goal of making space flight a more ordinary thing.