AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A crew of four took flight from Kennedy Space Center in Florida tonight on a three-day mission to space. But it's not being run by NASA. The space agency, for the most part, is just a spectator. The private company SpaceX runs this all-civilian mission. From member station WMFE in Orlando, Brendan Byrne reports that it's a sign space travel is opening up to more people.
BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: The mission is called Inspiration4, and it's not like any other space flight that launched from the U.S. before. They're not astronauts. They're essentially highly trained tourists riding on a commercial spacecraft, and one of them is Hayley Arceneaux.
HAYLEY ARCENEAUX: And then they asked if I wanted to be part of it and actually go to space. And immediately, I said yes. Yes. Like, there was no hesitation there.
BYRNE: Arceneaux is a childhood cancer survivor and physician's assistant. She's not a billionaire, but she's getting help from one. Tech billionaire Jared Isaacman is chartering the flight through Elon Musk's private space company SpaceX. Isaacman also picked geologist Dr. Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski, an aerospace engineer and Air Force veteran, to join as the final two crew members. They'll spend three days in orbit conducting science experiments, talking with kids here on Earth and snapping photos from an orbit higher than the Hubble Space Telescope. The last time humans launched from Kennedy Space Center was back in April.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Three, two, one, zero. Ignition and liftoff. Godspeed...
BYRNE: That flight carried four astronauts on a six-month mission to the International Space Station. NASA's Kathy Lueders oversaw that launch, but she's not in the control room for this SpaceX mission because it's commercial.
KATHY LUEDERS: I cannot tell you how excited I am for the SpaceX folks. This is like watching your kids graduate from college.
BYRNE: Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has embraced the private space industry. NASA did help SpaceX develop the Crew Dragon capsule for its astronauts, but the agency doesn't own the spacecraft. Lueders says that leaves SpaceX the chance to sell private spaceflights just like this one.
LUEDERS: This is what we were dreaming about, us one day being able to enable a capability that the public can use. And we're getting ready to see it.
BYRNE: The Inspiration4 mission follows two high-profile space tourism missions that happened this summer. There was Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin. Both flew to the edge of space and back. Those companies are selling tickets for future flights that can be up to millions of dollars for a single seat. So is space just for the super rich? At the moment, that's the public perception. But this SpaceX flight wants to change that.
TIMIEBI AGANABA: Inspiration4 have this - you know, had this real need to be, like, this is the people's mission.
BYRNE: Timiebi Aganaba is a professor of space law at Arizona State University. She says the reality is space travel is still expensive, and we're a long way away from just anyone going to space.
AGANABA: This is not going to be for everyone. But it's going to be for more people than the 600 people that have been to space. That's for sure.
BYRNE: And the idea of more regular people flying into space starts with Inspiration4.
For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando.
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