SpaceX launches first all-tourist crew into orbit

By Jackie Wattles, Fernando Alfonso III and Meg Wagner, CNN

Updated 0146 GMT (0946 HKT) September 16, 2021
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9:28 p.m. ET, September 15, 2021

We have liftoff: Inspiration4 has launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center

(SpaceX)
(SpaceX)

History has been made as Inspiration4 — the first-ever orbital flight crewed entirely by tourists — launched this evening from NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

The four passengers onboard will spend three days aboard their 13-foot-wide Crew Dragon capsule freeflying through orbit at a 350-mile altitude — 100 miles higher than where the International Space Station orbits. 

The crew is expected to return to Earth this Saturday.

Watch the moment:

8:02 p.m. ET, September 15, 2021

We're moments away from the expected launch. Here's what to expect after liftoff.

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

(SpaceX)
(SpaceX)

We're just minutes away from the expected launch of SpaceX's Inspiration4, the first-ever orbital flight crewed entirely by tourists.

When the countdown clock hits zero, the Falcon 9 rocket will fire up its engines and roar toward space.

Here's what will happen in the moments after that:

  • About one minute later, the rocket will hit “Max Q,” an aerospace term that refers to the point during flight at which a vehicle experiences its maximum dynamic pressure. Put simply: It’s when the rocket is moving at very high speed, at a time when the atmosphere is still pretty thick, putting a lot of pressure on the vehicle.  
  • Two and a half minutes after launch, the bottom part of the rocket, the largest section that gives the initial thrust at liftoff, will shut down its engines — at moment referred to as Main Engine Cutoff or MECO — and detach. That part of the rocket, with most of its fuel spent, will then head back down to Earth for a pinpoint landing on a seafaring platform so that SpaceX can refurbish and fly the rocket again (All part of the company's plan to save money and make spaceflight cheaper.)
  • Meanwhile, the second stage of the rocket, still attached to the crew capsule, will fire up its engine and continue accelerating faster and faster until it spends its fuel and reaches orbital velocities — or more than 17,000 miles per hour.
  • About 12 minutes post-liftoff, the second stage will detach from the crew capsule.
  • What's left of the rocket will be discarded in the ocean, while the Crew Dragon capsule and its four passengers will begin its three-day free-fly through orbit.
  • All the intense G-forces will be over, and the crew will be weightless. The tip of the capsule, called the nosecone, will open to reveal a large dome-shaped window. And the capsule will use its onboard thrusters to orient it into the correct orbit.
7:48 p.m. ET, September 15, 2021

SpaceX is loading 1 million pounds of propellant onto the rocket

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

(SpaceX)
(SpaceX)

Crews at NASA's Kennedy Space Center are fueling up the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will take the Inspiration4 crew to space.

The rocket will take on 1 million pounds of fuel ahead of lift off. The launch window opens at 8:02 p.m. ET.

The rocket will take on 1 million pounds of fuel, including liquid oxygen and the aptly named RP-1 — or rocket propellant 1, ahead of lift off. The plumes of what looks like smoke coming off the rocket are actually just liquid oxygen vaporizing off the rocket, boiling off as it comes in contact with the hot Florida air.

7:42 p.m. ET, September 15, 2021

All systems are "green and go" ahead of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch

From CNN’s Aaron Cooper and Jackie Wattles

Weather, range, and all systems are “green and go” for the launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, according to a livestream from the company. 

This mission, dubbed Inspiration4, is the first orbital mission in the history of spaceflight to be staffed entirely by tourists or otherwise non-astronauts.

The company is targeting a launch at the opening of the window at 8:02 p.m. ET. 

Rocket fuel is now being loaded into the Falcon 9 rocket, according to the livestream. 

The retractable gangway the crew used to board the spacecraft has been pulled back and the emergency abort system for the Crew Dragon capsule has been armed. 

7:40 p.m. ET, September 15, 2021

What the families are saying: "We are anxious, we are nervous"

From CNN Business' Jackie Wattles

In a Netflix documentary about this launch, family members of the passengers talked about their excitement — and anxieties — about this mission. Here's what they had to say.

I think being the partner, there is this expectation that we are proud — that we are grateful, and we are happy to be here. And the reality is that yes, we are all of those things but we also are anxious, and we also are nervous.” - Chris Sembroski's wife, Erin Sembroski

Chris and Erin Sembroski in the Netflix documentary 'Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission To Space'.
Chris and Erin Sembroski in the Netflix documentary 'Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission To Space'.

Hayley Arceneaux’s mother, Colleen Arceneaux, said she was haunted by the story of Christa McAuliffe, the school teacher who was slated to be one of the first civilian astronauts to go to space but died in the Challenger disaster.

I try not to go there, but of course, I do....Christa McAuliffe's parents' faces, you know pops into my head....I'm not thinking about [Hayley] being in space. I'm thinking about today. I think, similar to when she was going through treatment, one day at a time. I know the people behind the scenes, and I'm very confident. But of course, you know, as a mother, I have those worries. "
Jared Isaacman and his family.
Jared Isaacman and his family.

It's weird like now that we're getting closer to it, you start dreaming about the stuff like, good and bad, right. Like, you start thinking about what could happen, risks that are involved. I'm trying to be excited for him and show him how proud I am, but you have your good days and you have your bad days.” - Jared Isaacman's wife, Monica Isaacman

7:31 p.m. ET, September 15, 2021

What the crew ate before the flight — and what they'll eat in space

From CNN Business' Jackie Wattles

Jared Isaacman, left, and Hayley Arceneaux prepare to head to launchpad 39A for a launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday Sept. 15, 2021.
Jared Isaacman, left, and Hayley Arceneaux prepare to head to launchpad 39A for a launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday Sept. 15, 2021.

Before heading out to the launch pad, the crew had a quick meal that included steak and eggs — a classic pre-flight meal at Kennedy Space Center. Proctor told CNN Business' Rachel Crane that she also ordered up a chocolate smoothie. Arceneaux said she requested a glazed donut. But Isaacman said he opted for just a black coffee.

"I'm not a breakfast person," he said.

The crew was also able to request specific foods to enjoy in orbit — as long as it's zero-gravity friendly.

"The cold pizza better be packed because that was my order," Proctor told reporters Tuesday.

7:23 p.m. ET, September 15, 2021

Space tourist: "We're writing the rules; we're breaking a couple"

From CNN Business' Jackie Wattles

Chris Sembroski during the crew's interview with Rachel Crane.
Chris Sembroski during the crew's interview with Rachel Crane.

At a press briefing Tuesday evening, Chris Sembroski, the 42-year-old who got his ticket via a raffle, told reporters that joining the Inspriation4 mission felt like "we're writing the rules, we're breaking a couple of them that NASA used to demand...We get to kind of do things our own way."

CNN Business' Rachel Crane followed up with Sembroski in an interview:

When I say that we're breaking rules is that we're not using the traditional paths to get to space, we are definitely all going through different training and finding ways that will allow us to accommodate each other's uniqueness and talents so that we can open up the space for more people.
7:13 p.m. ET, September 15, 2021

What the crew will jam to in space

From CNN Business' Jackie Wattles

The crew has a 40-song Spotify playlist downloaded and queued up to play during their journey. It includes jams from a variety of artists, from Jain to KoЯn to Smashmouth.

Each passenger picked 10 songs for the list. There's a few space-related songs on it, including:

  • "Starships" by Nicki Minaj
  • "Rocket Man" by Elton John
  • "Space Girl" by Francis Forever
  • "Counting Stars" by One Republic

Here's what Sembroski said about the curated playlist:

When my wife and I created the playlist, I wanted a mix that reflected the Pacific Northwest as well as music that captured all the expected unique experiences ahead. Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” sets the tone for launch and then I went with songs that reminded me of flight and realizing what has been a lifelong dream for me. The idea of strutting out in my suit with “Dangerous” by Big Data playing or the saxophone solo from “Midnight City” by M83 as I look out at space from the cupola is already sending chills down my spine. Finally, I’m ready for everyone to see those “Blinding Lights” from Falcon 9 as we liftoff from Pad 39A, and I’ll probably not sleep until I feel gravity again.
7:02 p.m. ET, September 15, 2021

We're an hour from the start of the launch window. Here's how this whole thing should go down.

From CNN Business' Jackie Wattles

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sits on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. 
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sits on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. 

SpaceX's five-hour launch window begins at 8:02 pm ET, and forecasters have give a 90% chance that the weather will be good enough for liftoff. If everything goes according to plan, this is what you should see.

When the countdown clock hits zero, the Falcon 9 rocket will fire up its engines and roar toward space.

About one minute later, the rocket will hit “Max Q,” an aerospace term that refers to the point during flight at which a vehicle experiences its maximum dynamic pressure.

Put simply: It’s when the rocket is moving at very high speed, at a time when the atmosphere is still pretty thick, putting a lot of pressure on the vehicle.  

Two and a half minutes after launch, the bottom part of the rocket, the largest section that gives the initial thrust at liftoff, will shut down its engines — at moment referred to as Main Engine Cutoff or MECO — and detach. That part of the rocket, with most of its fuel spent, will then head back down to Earth for a pinpoint landing on a seafaring platform so that SpaceX can refurbish and fly the rocket again (All part of the company's plan to save money and make spaceflight cheaper.)

Meanwhile, the second stage of the rocket, still attached to the crew capsule, will fire up its engine and continue accelerating faster and faster until it spends its fuel and reaches orbital velocities — or more than 17,000 miles per hour.

About 12 minutes post-liftoff, the second stage will detach from the crew capsule.

What's left of the rocket will be discarded in the ocean, while the Crew Dragon capsule and its four passengers will begin its three-day free-fly through orbit.

All the intense G-forces will be over, and the crew will be weightless. The tip of the capsule, called the nosecone, will open to reveal a large dome-shaped window. And the capsule will use its onboard thrusters to orient it into the correct orbit.