St. Jude physician assistant blasts off on SpaceX rocket

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — SpaceX successfully blasted a billionaire into orbit Wednesday night with his two contest winners and a Memphis health care worker who survived childhood cancer.

St. Jude physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux is among the passengers on the first chartered passenger flight for Elon Musk’s SpaceX and a big step in space tourism by a private company. Arceneaux will become the first pediatric cancer survivor and youngest American to reach space.

The launch happened at 7 p.m. Central time.

Musk flew in for the launch, as did hundreds of SpaceX workers and representatives of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Richard Shadyac, president and CEO of St. Jude fundraising organization ALSAC, tweeted that he had chills watching the launch. “It’s an extraordinary night for her and all of us at St. Jude,” he wrote.

The passengers will spend three days orbiting Earth at an unusually high altitude of 357 miles — 100 miles higher than the International Space Station — before splashing down off the Florida coast this weekend.

In July, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos launched aboard their own rockets to spur ticket sales. Their flights barely skimmed space, though, and lasted just minutes.

Jared Isaacman, a Pennsylvania entrepreneur who paid to be on the flight, is using the flight to try to raise $200 million for St. Jude, half of that coming from his own pockets.

He and the others — sweepstake winners Chris Sembroski, a data engineer, and Sian Proctor, a community college educator — said on the eve of launch that they had few if any last-minute jitters. It will be the first time in 60 years of human spaceflight that no professional astronaut is aboard an orbit-bound rocket.

With 2 1/2 hours remaining, all four were strapped in.

Their fully automated 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 to the capsule, according to Reed, is the large domed window at the top in place of the usual space station docking mechanisms.

Isaacman — founder of a payment-processing company and an accomplished pilot — said Musk has assured him “the entire leadership team is solely focused on this mission and is very confident.” He added: “That obviously inspires a lot of confidence in us as well.”

While NASA has no role in the flight, its managers and astronauts are rooting for the flight, dubbed Inspiration4.

“To me, the more people involved in it, whether private or government, the better, ” said NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, who is nearing the end of his six-month space station stay.

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