Inspiration4 mission, led by billionaire businessman Jared Isaacman, would take Americans the farthest into space since 2009
A Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon space capsule on top lifted off with a fiery plume from a pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida just after 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, according to a live stream of the takeoff.
About 12 minutes after launch, the capsule carrying members of the Inspiration4 mission—a billionaire businessman, a geoscientist, a physician assistant and an aerospace engineer—separated from a booster. Then, the capsule began traveling to an orbit about 360 miles above Earth.
That orbit would be higher than those followed by the International Space Station and by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Hubble Space Telescope, according to SpaceX. Americans haven’t been that far into space since 2009, when NASA astronauts last worked on repairing the Hubble.
The capsule is slated to return to Earth after about three days, splashing down off the coast of Florida.
The space flight Wednesday marks new terrain for a commercial space industry that has attracted entrepreneurs and investors who are betting on an expanding set of business opportunities beyond Earth.
For the first time, an all-civilian crew is traveling to orbit on a mission arranged entirely by private parties. Jared Isaacman, the billionaire founder of payments-processing company Shift4 Payments Inc., purchased the trip for an undisclosed sum from SpaceX and is commanding the mission. Previous travelers to orbit had to secure seats on Russian government-controlled rockets to venture that deep into space.
“Few have come before, and many are about to follow. The door’s open now, and it’s pretty incredible,” Mr. Isaacman said during a SpaceX live stream of the launch.
Three people joined Mr. Isaacman on the flight, which has a charitable component. They are Dr. Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and science communicator; Hayley Arceneaux, a cancer survivor who now works as a physician assistant; and Chris Sembroski, an Air Force veteran and aerospace-industry employee.
Orbital space missions carry risks. The crew will travel around the Earth at around 17,000 miles an hour in SpaceX’s crew capsule. The company’s Falcon 9 rocket uses nine engines fueled with kerosene and liquid oxygen during the first stage of flights. Upon re-entry, the capsule’s heat shield is expected to endure temperatures of around 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Upon landing in the ocean with parachutes, the capsule is expected to be traveling about 24 feet a second.
“Any jitters are the good kind,” Ms. Arceneaux said Tuesday during a briefing about the flight.
To prepare for today’s flight, members of the crew trained for months. That regimen included hiking up Mt. Rainier together, flying in jet fighters to mimic the stress of spaceflight and spending 30 hours together in the crew capsule.
Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight at SpaceX, said Tuesday that the company had established a plan for the mission that included accounting for fuel, food and water—and space debris. Mr. Musk told crew members that the company’s leaders are focused on carrying out the mission, Mr. Isaacman said.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the formal name for SpaceX, was founded by Mr. Musk in 2002 with a goal of taking people to Mars. The company has invested in developing rockets that it could reuse in a relatively quick manner to push down the cost of launching crew or cargo into space.
In 2015 and the year after, separate Falcon 9 rockets exploded. But SpaceX says it has launched Falcon 9 boosters more than 120 times.
Last year, the company ferried two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, the first human launch from U.S. soil in almost a decade.
SpaceX has built other rockets, established a satellite-internet service called Starlink and is building a moon lander for NASA in addition to handling launches for the agency, military clients and commercial customers. In April, SpaceX was valued at more than $74 billion.
Other companies are also pursuing private space trips. Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. flew people about 54 miles above Earth over the summer, while Blue Origin LLC launched passengers more than 62 miles up. Boeing Co. has said seats on its Starliner space capsule could be used for tourist flights.
SpaceX’s Mr. Reed said Tuesday that the company wants to make going to space easier, including to other planets. “The long-term vision is that spaceflight becomes airline-like. You buy a ticket, and you go,” he said.
The company has a backlog of commercial-astronaut missions, he said, and wants to be able to launch such flights up to six times a year at a minimum. Some of the company’s future private missions, including four contracted by Axiom Space Inc., have already been announced.
Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s commercial spaceflight division, said Inspiration4 marked the culmination of a yearslong effort at the agency to help bolster companies that could provide transport services for NASA as well as for private astronauts.
“With private companies bringing their own capital and their own capabilities, NASA can just leverage that—we don’t have to build everything ourselves. And then we can focus on the deep space exploration missions,” he said.