By Julio-Cesar Chavez and Steve Gorman
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) -A billionaire e-commerce executive and three less-wealthy private citizens chosen to join him blasted off from Florida on Wednesday aboard a SpaceX rocket ship and soared into orbit, the first all-civilian crew ever to circle the Earth from space.
The quartet of amateur astronauts, led by the American founder and chief executive of financial services firm Shift4 Payments Inc, Jared Isaacman, lifted off just before sunset from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.
A SpaceX webcast of the launch showed Isaacman, 38, and his crewmates - Sian Proctor, 51, Hayley Arceneaux, 29, and Chris Sembroski, 42 - strapped into the pressurized cabin of their gleaming white SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, wearing their helmeted black-and-white flight suits.
Thumbs-up were on display as the capsule streaked into the dark sky, perched atop one of SpaceX's reusable two-stage Falcon 9 rockets. The Crew Dragon, fitted with a special observation dome in place of its usual docking hatch, reached orbit almost 10 minutes after the 8:03 p.m. EDT blastoff.
The rocket's first-stage booster, after separating from the spacecraft's top half, flew itself back to Earth and touched down safely on a landing platform floating in the Atlantic on a drone ship whimsically named Just Read the Instructions
Amid cheers heard in SpaceX's mission-control center as the spacecraft climbed to nearly 125 miles (200 km) above Earth, Isaacman read a statement thanking those who made possible a journey "right to the doorstep of an exciting and unexplored frontier, where few have come before and many are about to follow."
"The door is open now, and it's pretty incredible," he said.
Within three hours the capsule had reached its final cruising orbital altitude of just over 363 miles (585 km) - higher than the International Space Station or Hubble Space Telescope, and the furthest any human has flown from Earth since NASA's Apollo moon program ended in 1972, according to SpaceX.
At that height the Crew Dragon was circling the globe once every 90 minutes at a speed of some 17,000 miles per hour (27,360 kph), or roughly 22 times the speed of sound.
The flight, representing the first crewed mission to orbit with no professional astronauts, is expected to last about three days from launch to splashdown in the Atlantic, mission officials said.
It also marked the debut flight of SpaceX owner Elon Musk's new orbital tourism business, and a leap ahead of competitors likewise offering rides on rocket ships to customers willing to pay a small fortune for the exhilaration - and bragging rights - of spaceflight.
NASA, which exercised a government-run U.S. monopoly over spaceflight for decades, has embraced the nascent commercialization of rocket travel.
In a Twitter message posted shortly before Wednesday's launch, the space agency said: "#Inspiration4 embodies our vision for a future in which private companies can transport cargo and people to low-Earth orbit. More opportunities to fly = more opportunities for science."
Isaacman paid an undisclosed sum to fellow billionaire Musk to send himself and his three crewmates aloft. Time magazine has put the ticket price for all four seats at $200 million.
The mission, called Inspiration4, was conceived by Isaacman mainly to raise awareness and donations for one of his favorite causes, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a pediatric cancer center in Memphis, Tennessee.
SUBORBITAL SPACE BILLIONAIRES
SpaceX rivals Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc and Blue Origin inaugurated their own private-astronaut services this summer, with their respective founding executives, billionaires Richard Branson https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/science/virgin-galactics-branson-ready-space-launch-aboard-rocket-plane-2021-07-11 and Jeff Bezos https://www.reuters.com/article/us-space-exploration-blueorigin-idAFKBN2EQ0EP, each going along for the ride.
Those suborbital flights, lasting a matter of minutes, were short hops compared with Inspiration4's spaceflight profile.
SpaceX already ranks as the most well-established player in the burgeoning constellation of commercial rocket ventures, having launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA. Two of its Dragon capsules are docked there already.
The Inspiration4 crew has no part to play in flying the spacecraft, which is operated by ground-based flight teams and onboard guidance systems, even though two crew members are licensed pilots.
Isaacman, who is rated to fly commercial and military jets, has assumed the role of mission "commander," while Proctor, a geoscientist and former NASA astronaut candidate, has been designated as the "pilot."
Rounding out the crew are "chief medical officer" Arceneaux, a bone cancer survivor turned St. Jude physician assistant, and mission "specialist" Sembroski, a U.S. Air Force veteran and aerospace data engineer.
The four crewmates have spent five months in rigorous preparations, including altitude fitness, centrifuge (G-force), microgravity and simulator training, emergency drills, classroom work and medical exams.
Inspiration4 officials have said the mission is more than a joyride.
While in orbit, the crew will perform a series of medical experiments with "potential applications for human health on Earth and during future spaceflights," the group said.
Biomedical data and biological samples, including ultrasound scans, will also be collected from crew members before, during and after the flight.
Arceneaux was tasked with overseeing the medical experiments. She also made history as the youngest American launched into space and the youngest among just over 550 humans to reach Earth orbit, according to SpaceX.
(Reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)