Cosmic Space

Cancer survivor joins private space mission

The second member of a four-person crew for what’s likely to be the first privately funded orbital space tour has been identified: She’s Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant who works at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. — and was successfully treated for bone cancer at St. Jude almost two decades ago.

Arceneaux was invited to be part of the Inspiration4 mission weeks ago by its commander and principal funder, Shift4 Payments CEO and founder Jared Isaacman — but her identity was kept secret until today.

“It’s an incredible honor to join the Inspiration4 crew. This seat represents the hope that St. Jude gave me — and continues to give families from around the world, who, like me, find hope when they walk through the doors of St. Jude,” Arceneaux said in a news release.

“When I was just 10 years old, St. Jude gave me the opportunity to grow up. Now I am fulfilling my dreams of working at the research hospital and traveling around the world,” she said.

Arceneaux told NBC News that she and Isaacman both tried on spacesuits last weekend. “That’s what really made it real,” she said.

If the project sticks to its schedule, Isaacman, Arceneaux and two more crewmates will be sent into orbit in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule late this year. Arceneaux would become the world’s youngest spaceflier — displacing Sally Ride, who was 32 when she became NASA’s first female astronaut in 1983. That’s assuming that one of the crew members yet to be named isn’t even younger.

One crew member is to be selected in a sweepstakes that will benefit St. Jude, while the fourth flier will be an entrepreneur who’ll be selected by a panel of judges on the basis of how he or she uses the Shift4Shop e-commerce platform. The deadline for both contests is Feb. 28. (Check the Inspiration4 website for the full set of rules.)

Isaacman, 38, is a trained jet pilot whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at $2.4 billion. He has framed the space mission as a philanthropic venture with the goal of raising at least $200 million for St. Jude — including $100 million of his own money.

The sweepstakes has raised $9.8 million so far, with a week to go. Isaacman says the fundraising effort will continue after the sweepstakes is over, all the way up to the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Florida.

Inspiration4 won’t be heading to the International Space Station, as was the case for last year’s two NASA-funded Crew Dragon flights. Instead, it’ll be a free-flying mission, lasting two to four days and tracing an orbit yet to be announced. “Wherever you want to go, we’ll take you there,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told Isaacman during a Feb. 1 teleconference focusing on the mission.

Isaacman hasn’t said how much he’s spending on the Crew Dragon mission, but based on what SpaceX has been charging NASA, the price tag is likely to be in the range of tens of millions of dollars. “What we aim to raise in terms of those funds and the amount of good it will do will certainly far exceed the cost of the mission,” Isaacman has said.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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