FLORIDA, United States - The latest in a recent line of billionaire space enthusiasts prepared for liftoff on Wednesday along with three other private citizens aboard a SpaceX rocket ship, aiming to become the first all-civilian crew launched into Earth orbit.
The quartet of amateur space travelers, led by the American founder and chief executive of e-commerce firm Shift4 Payments Inc Jared Isaacman, were due for blastoff as early as 8 p.m. EDT (0000 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The flight, with no professional astronauts accompanying SpaceX's paying customers, is expected to last about three days from liftoff to splashdown in the Atlantic.
"Everything is go for launch," SpaceX principal integration engineer John Insprucker declared about 3 1/2 hours before launch time in a SpaceX webcast of pre-liftoff activities.
A short time earlier, Isaacman, 38, and his crewmates - Sian Proctor, 51, Hayley Arceneaux, 29, and Chris Sembroski, 42 - strolled out of a SpaceX hangar waiving to cheering crowds of family, friends and well-wishers.
From there they were driven in two automobiles across the space center complex to a support building, where they donned the black-and-white spacesuits they will wear for liftoff.
They then headed to the launch pad to board a gleaming white SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, perched atop one of the company's reusable Falcon 9 rockets and fitted with a special observation dome in place of the usual docking hatch.
This marks 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.
Isaacman has 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 support for one of his favorite causes, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a leading pediatric cancer center in Memphis, Tennessee.
Inspiration4 is aiming for an orbital altitude of 360 miles (575 km) above Earth, higher than the International Space Station or Hubble Space Telescope. At that height, the Crew Dragon will circle 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.
LEAP AHEAD OF RIVALS
Rival companies Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin inaugurated their own private-astronaut services this summer, with their respective founding executives, billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, 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 will have no part to play in flying the spacecraft, which will be 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 mission "pilot."
Rounding out the crew are "chief medical officer" Arceneaux, a bone cancer survivor turned St. Jude physician assistant, and mission "specialist" Sembroski, a US Air Force veteran and aerospace data engineer.
The 4 crewmates have spent 5 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.
Once 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 in media materials.
Biomedical data and biological samples, including ultrasound scans, will also be collected from crew members before, during and after the flight.
"The crew of Inspiration4 is eager to use our mission to help make a better future for those who will launch in the years and decades to come," Isaacman said in a statement.