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SpaceX launches world’s first ‘amateur astronaut’ crew to orbit Earth

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SpaceX has sent the world’s first all civilian-crewed rocket into orbit in a major milestone for space tourism.

The Inspiration4 crew - made up of billionaire Jared Isaacman who has funded the trip, two contest winners, and a health care worker - launched from the Kennedy Space Centre on Wednesday night.

The Dragon capsule will spend three days circling Earth before splashing down off the coast of Florida.

The capsule will orbit the planet once every 90 minutes at a speed of more than 17,000mph and an altitude of 360 miles - even higher than the orbiting International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope.

Although this is not the first time civilians have travelled to space - earlier this summer, billionaire businessmen Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos went above Earth’s atmosphere in their own space vehicles - Inspiration4 is the first mission manned solely by civilians.

Isaacman conceived the mission to raise awareness and support for the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a leading paediatric cancer centre in Memphis, Tennessee.

Hayley Arceneaux, who works at the hospital, which treated her for bone cancer as a child is a member of the crew.

The Inspiration4 crew of Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman and Hayley Arceneaux (via REUTERS)
The Inspiration4 crew of Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman and Hayley Arceneaux (via REUTERS)

She became the youngest American in space and the first person in space with a prosthesis, a titanium rod in her left leg.

Also on board were sweepstakes winners Chris Sembroski, 42, a data engineer in Everett, Washington, and Sian Proctor, 51, a community college educator in Tempe, Arizona.

They have had six months of intensive training with SpaceX. However, onboard computer systems will be in control of their Dragon capsule, overseen by SpaceX teams on the ground.

The first images were sent from on board the flight in space. One showed a golden retriever stuffed toy mascot, representing the assistance dogs used at St Jude, could be seen floating around the capsule in the weightlessness of space.

This screengrab taken from the SpaceX live webcast shows a plush dog floating in the capsule of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Inspiration4 crew (SPACEX/AFP via Getty Images)
This screengrab taken from the SpaceX live webcast shows a plush dog floating in the capsule of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Inspiration4 crew (SPACEX/AFP via Getty Images)

SpaceX founder Elon Musk was present to see the crew off.

Isaacman, who owns the Shift4 Payments company, noted upon reaching orbit that few people have been to space - fewer than 600 over 60 years.

But he added, “Many are about to follow. The door’s opening now and it’s pretty incredible.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (C) looks on during the Inspiration4 crew send off at NASAs Kennedy Space Center in Florida (AFP via Getty Images)
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (C) looks on during the Inspiration4 crew send off at NASAs Kennedy Space Center in Florida (AFP via Getty Images)

Their capsule has already been to orbit: It was used for SpaceX’s second astronaut flight for NASA to the space station. The only significant change is the large domed window at the top in place of the usual space station docking mechanisms.

An accomplished pilot, Isaacman persuaded SpaceX to take the fully automated Dragon capsule higher than it’s ever been.

Initially reluctant because of the increased radiation exposure and other risks, SpaceX agreed after a safety review.

“Now I just wish we pushed them to go higher,” Isaacman told reporters on the eve of the flight. “If we’re going to go to the moon again and we’re going to go to Mars and beyond, then we’ve got to get a little outside of our comfort zone and take the next step in that direction.”

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