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In a new chapter of commercial spaceflight, SpaceX plans to launch a crew of only private astronauts into orbit — the world's first such mission.
The Elon Musk-led company announced Monday that it's set to launch tech entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, chief executive of Allentown, Pa.-based payment firm Shift4 Payments, and three others as early as the fourth quarter of this year. The mission, named Inspiration4, is intended to last two to four days and raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
Two of the seats on the flight will be offered as prizes. People who donate at least $10 to St. Jude this month will be entered in a sweepstakes for one of the seats. Entrepreneurs who create an online store through Shift4Shop — a platform offered by Isaacman's payment company — and post about it on social media will compete for the other.
The crew would travel aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon astronaut capsule, which ferried two cadres of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station last year.
As SpaceX began work on its Starship Mars spacecraft, it developed strong interest in paying for that project by offering space tourism. It already has competition in that sphere: Multiple companies have begun accepting down payments for tourist flights, and British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has flown test pilots and a staff member to suborbital space.
Hawthorne-based SpaceX is set to launch a separate mission of all-private astronauts to the space station as early as next year. That mission will be managed by Houston-based human spaceflight company Axiom Space.
SpaceX also intends to fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon in the company's Starship spacecraft in 2023. Maezawa has declined to say how much he's paying for the flight, but he has submitted a down payment that Musk described in 2018 as "significant." Maezawa's overall payment helps cover the cost of developing the mammoth spacecraft and rocket system, which is being tested near Boca Chica Village in Texas.
Isaacman's flight will also help pay for Starship development, Musk told reporters Monday. SpaceX plans to use Starship to ferry people and cargo to the moon and Mars, launch large numbers of satellites and transport people quickly from one place on Earth to another.
"This is an important milestone toward enabling access to space for everyone,” Musk said. "Things necessarily start off real expensive because it’s new technology at low volume, low production rate, so we actually need people who are willing and able to pay the high prices initially to make it affordable long term for everyone.”
Isaacman did not say how much he's paying for his flight — including the price of the other three passengers' seats — but said the money he plans to raise for St. Jude and the good he hopes the mission will accomplish will "far exceed the cost of the mission itself.”
Isaacman, 37, said he plans to donate $100 million to St. Jude and hopes that other donors — incentivized by the sweepstakes — will, combined, more than match that amount.
The flight's fourth seat will go to a front-line healthcare worker affiliated with St. Jude. Isaacman did not identify the worker or specify her job, but he told reporters that she had already been selected and is "looking forward to the launch as much as me.”
Details on the cargo and experiments the crew plan to bring aboard have yet to be released.
Isaacman said he and his future crewmates will undergo commercial astronaut training at SpaceX that is "virtually identical” to the training curriculum used by the NASA astronauts who rode SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule to the space station.
Isaacman said he's also planning some additional training and team-building activities, including plane flights in which the crew members can experience the G-forces they'll endure during liftoff and a camping trip in a tent on a mountain to help them get used to close quarters.
Isaacman, who is a pilot, said he feels confident about the Crew Dragon spacecraft. He said he has experience traveling to remote destinations, recalling a trip to Mt. Vinson in Antarctica.
"When you compare the two from a risk perspective, I’ll take Dragon any day,” Isaacman said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.