St. Jude Hospital and Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur, chose Hayley Arceneaux for a journey to orbit in a SpaceX capsule.
Hayley Arceneaux, 29, had expected this would be the year that she would fulfil her wish to visit all seven continents before she turned 30. However, she won’t have time to do that. She is going to space instead.
Ms Arceneaux, a physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, will be one of the four people on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launching from Florida. Expected a lift-off late this year, it will be the first crewed mission to orbit Earth in which no one on board is a professional astronaut.
This spatial voyage is led by Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire who in January announced that he had bought the rocket launch from SpaceX, the space company initiated by Elon Musk. Mr Isaacman wished the mission to be more than an expedition for the superwealthy and he had allotted two of the four available seats to St. Jude.
One of them will go to a random winner in a sweepstakes contest to raise money for the hospital, which treats children absolutely free and develops remedies for childhood cancers and other diseases. The other seat, Mr Isaacman said, will be given to a frontline health care worker at St. Jude, someone who represents hope. On Monday, officials at St. Jude and Mr Isaacman disclosed that Ms Arceneaux was the person they had selected.
Ms Arceneaux could become the youngest ever American ever to travel to space. She will also be the first person with a prosthetic body part to go to orbit. She was a patient at St. Jude almost 20 years back and as part of her treatment for bone cancer, metal rods replaced parts of the bones in her left leg. Earlier, that would have kept her firmly on the ground, due to her inability to meet NASA’s strict medical parameters for astronauts. However, the emergence of privately financed space travel has opened the final frontier to some people who were earlier rejected.
Dr Michael D. Neel, the orthopaedic surgeon who installed Ms Arceneaux’s prosthesis, believes that possessing artificial leg bones forbids her to play contact sports on Earth. They should not restrict her on this SpaceX trek. Ms Arceneaux hopes to inspire patients at St. Jude.
Ms Arceneaux herself did not know that she would have a seat on the rocket till early January. Officials at the hospital had moderately informed her that there was a scope they wanted to speak to her about. She assumed it could be a commercial or maybe delivering a speech somewhere. Instead, it was a chance to be an astronaut.
Her mom did not object. At the tender age of 10, Ms Arceneaux walked into St. Jude for the first time in 2002. By then she already had a black belt in taekwondo, but she was complaining of pain in her leg. Her mother came across a bump protruding over the left knee. The paediatrician in the small town of St. Francisville, La., where they stayed, not far from Baton Rouge, suspected a cancerous tumour.
At St. Jude, doctors pacified that cancer had not spread to other parts of her body. Ms Arceneaux had to undergo chemotherapy, an operation to install the prosthetic leg bones and long sessions of physical therapy.
Even during that youthful age, bald from chemotherapy, Ms Arceneaux was aiding at fund-raisers for St. Jude. The next year, Louisiana Public Broadcasting honoured her with one of its Young Heroes awards.
Last year, St. Jude hired Ms Arceneaux. She works with children with leukaemia and lymphoma, such as a teenage boy she recently spoke with.
Ms Arceneaux and Mr Isaacman have visited SpaceX’s headquarters in California thrice to meet engineers and plan the trip. Unlike the missions that SpaceX flies for NASA, this one will not go to the International Space Station but will rather orbit Earth for three or four days before splashing down off the Florida coast. It will still be a few more weeks before they find out who their companions will be.
Mr Isaacman will grant a donor who contributed $100,000 a ride in the Russian-built MiG-29 jet fighter that he owns. The donor will also get a trip to view the launch at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But that donor still has only 10,000 entries in the sweepstakes, the same as someone who donated $1,000.
Mr Isaacman said this was an intentional choice to prevent a wealthy person from trying to snap up the grand prize of a trip to space by purchasing millions of entries.
The fourth SpaceX seat will go to the winner of a contest sponsored by Mr Isaacman’s company, Shift4, which sells credit-card-processing terminals and point-of-sale systems to restaurants and other businesses. The “Shark Tank”-like competition necessitates entrepreneurs to design an online store using Shift4’s software and then post a video on Twitter describing their trade.
Till last week, less than 100 people had submitted complete entries.