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SpaceX prepares to launch four civilians and a glass dome into space

Musk to demonstrate his is mightier than Bezos or Branson's

The first orbital spaceflight crewed completely by civilians, Inspiration4, is due to launch tonight from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A atop a SpaceX Falcon 9.

The mission was procured by and will be commanded by Shift4 Payments boss Jared Isaacman, with Sian Proctor, Hayley Arceneaux and Christopher Sembroski occupying the rest of the seats.

It's heady stuff. The majority of crewed missions launched into orbit since the ill-fated final flight of Space Shuttle Columbia have been to the International Space Station (ISS). China's Shenzhou missions are a notable exception, and Soyuz MS-10 infamously failed to make it to orbit.

Certainly, most crewed launches from the Kennedy Space Center (with the notable exception of the final Hubble servicing mission) have been destined for the outpost. The Inspiration4 mission, however, is set to last three days without troubling the lab.

The presence of four civilians onboard, all making their first flights, is also a first. Civilians have flown in space before and a Russian film crew is due to launch to the ISS in the next month or so, but at least one professional cosmonaut or astronaut has always been along for the ride. Not so with Inspiration4 and its non-government mission.

The capsule itself, Crew Dragon Resilience, was used for the Crew-1 mission to the ISS, returning earlier this year. Its mission this time is a considerably simpler affair, without the need for docking activities. As such, the docking mechanism has been removed from the capsule in favour of a domed cupola to permit its occupants to enjoy an impressive view of the Earth.

The flight plan calls for the Dragon to reach an apogee of 575km, higher than the Hubble space telescope and ISS. SpaceX has modestly declared the mission will fly "farther than any human spaceflight since the Hubble missions," which is true. The much earlier Apollo missions obviously went quite a bit further into space, however.

As with the capsule, the booster on which the mission will launch has already seen action and SpaceX plan to perform its always-impressive trick of landing the Falcon 9 stage on a drone-ship once again.

It is a far cry from the sub-orbital lobs of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos's New Shepard and stands to usher in a new era of orbital flight for the very wealthy. The bill for this flight is being paid by Isaacman, who hopes to raise awareness and funds for St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

Should all go well, SpaceX will be launching more paying customers, including Axiom Space's AX-1 mission, in January 2022.

The five-hour launch window for Inspiration4 currently opens at 00:02 UTC on 16 September. The last forecast [PDF] showed a 20 per cent chance of weather scrubbing the launch. ®

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