Lehigh Valley billionaire launches into orbit on historic all-civilian SpaceX mission

A billionaire from the Lehigh Valley goes into orbit and into history with the first purely civil space flight.

The SpaceX Insipiration4 mission, funded and commanded by Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old resident of Palmer Township and director of Shift4 Payments based in Allentown, successfully launched shortly after 8 p.m. on Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida with Isaacman and his three crew members on board.

The four civilians will spend three days orbiting 557 miles above Earth – higher than the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope, and longer than other billionaires’ space flights this year.

The mission also aims to raise $ 200 million for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, half of which Isaacman provided himself.

With Isaacman in orbit are Hayley Acreneaux, a doctor from St. Jude, Tennessee and a survivor of childhood cancer; and contest winners Chris Sembroski, a Seattle data engineer, and Sian Proctor, an educator at a community college in Phoenix. The civilian crew has spent hundreds of hours training with zero-G flights, time in jet fighters and simulations, and together they climbed Mt. Rainier in Washington state.

The purely civilian crew of the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission, from left: Christopher Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman and Hayley Arceneaux. Isaacman, the billionaire who finances and commands the three-day orbital mission, is from the Lehigh Valley and is the CEO of Shift4 Payments, based in Allentown.Photo courtesy of Inspiration4

The mission attracted national attention, and the crew appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Three Days That Could Change Mankind.”

“It marks a point in the evolution of our space travel that civilians can bring something like this together,” said former NASA astronaut and engineering professor at Lehigh University, Terry Hart, before the launch.

Hart, who flew on the space shuttle Challenger in 1984, said he was skeptical when NASA decided to end the shuttle program and hand over access to the space station to private companies like SpaceX. “But I have to give credit to (SpaceX founder) Elon Musk, he really put together a really impressive organization that makes space travel more routine,” said Hart, who estimates that half a dozen of his students have worked for Musk’s company.

Hart had one simple piece of advice to the new civil space travelers: “Take a deep breath and enjoy the view.”

So far, space travel remains accessible to government missions or the ultra-rich – apart from Isaacman’s select crew members. Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos flew briefly over space during their brief rides in July – Branson reached 53 miles while Bezos reached 66 miles. Each paid $ 55 million to fly SpaceX.

First purely civilian SpaceX flight

In this July 11, 2021 photo of John Kraus, from left, Hayley Arceneaux, Chris Sembroski, Jared Isaacman and Sian Proctor soar during a zero gravity flight from Las Vegas. The aircraft, a modified Boeing 727, flies multiple parabolic arcs to provide 20-30 seconds of weightlessness. (John Kraus / Inspiration4 via AP)AP

Isaacman does not want to reveal what he is paying for the flight, but he did acknowledge the “worthwhile debates” over whether the rich should spend their fortunes solving problems on Earth rather than exploring space. However, he claims that investing in space will drive costs down in the future.

Isaacman dropped out of high school at the age of 16 and started his business in his family’s basement in Far Hills, New Jersey, according to Shift4 payment website. Founded in 2001 in the High Bridge district of Hunterdon County, the company is now headquartered in Allentown.

Aviation is also an important part of Isaacson’s life. In 2011 he co-founded Draken International, which provides aviation services to the US and its allies. He has also flown more than 100 air shows with the Black Diamond Jet Team and set a speed record in 2009 while raising money for the Make-A-Wish program, according to Inspiration4’s crew biographies.

“Right from the start, we set out to deliver a very inspiring message. Certainly what you can do in space and the possibilities there, but also what we can achieve here on earth, ”Isaacman said in a press conference a little more than 24 hours before the start. “We are very focused on making sure that we give every bit of that time in orbit back to the people and causes that matter to us.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Steve Novak can be reached at [email protected]

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