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The idiom “shoot for the stars” has just taken on a literal meaning for cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux. On February 22, 2021, the Memphis, Tennessee, native was selected to be one of four crew members of the SpaceX Inspiration4 — the world's first civilian astronaut mission. The 29-year-old will make further history as the youngest American — and the first with a prosthetic limb — to travel to space.
"Until this mission, I could have never been an astronaut," Hayley said. "This mission is opening space travel to people who are not physically perfect."
Hayley's space aspirations began two decades ago, following a visit to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, during a family vacation. “I got to see where the astronauts trained and of course wanted to be an astronaut after that — who doesn’t?” She recalls. However, the young girl's dreams were derailed a year later when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma — a type of bone cancer — in her femur.
Fortunately, the often fatal disease had been caught early and the experts at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis were able to curtail its spread through chemotherapy and by replacing the diseased bones with metal rods in her left leg. Given NASA's strict medical requirements, Hayley knew that her dream of becoming an astronaut would probably never be realized. However, the young girl had already set her mind on a different, equally challenging, and fulfilling mission — working with young cancer patients at the hospital where she had been cured.
As it turned out, Hayley's dream of going to space was far from over. On January 5th, 2021, she got a surprise call from Jared Isaacman, CEO and founder of Shift4 Payments, asking her if she would like to go to space. "Immediately I said, 'Yes, yes, absolutely!'" Arceneaux told AFP.
Isaacman had always aspired to go to space. Hence when SpaceX announced the world’s first all-commercial astronaut mission, the 37-year-old billionaire, instantly booked the available four seats. In a bid to make the momentous journey more meaningful, the flying enthusiast — who will helm the Dragon spacecraft — announced that he would donate three seats to members of the general public, with the end goal of raising funds for St. Jude.
Hayley, the first crew member to be announced, will represent the pillar of "hope" — a nod to her survival of cancer and frontline work as a physician's assistant at St. Jude. The second passenger, representing the pillar of "generosity," will be chosen randomly from a sweepstake to raise $200 million — half of which will be donated by Isaacman — for the cancer hospital, which treats children at no charge. The last seat, representing "prosperity," will be given to an entrepreneur who adopts the Shift4 Payments platform for their company.
Prior to the mission launch later this year, the Inspiration4 crew will undergo intense training on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the Dragon spacecraft. They will also be trained on orbital mechanics and operating in microgravity and prepared for emergencies through mission simulations. The multi-day mission, which will orbit Earth every 90 minutes along a predetermined flight path, will be carefully monitored by Space X mission control scientists from Earth. The astronauts will spend their time in space conducting microgravity research and experiments. Upon the mission's completion, the Dragon will reenter Earth’s atmosphere for a soft water landing off the coast of Florida.
While Hayley is set to be the first person with a so-called disability to go to space, she won’t be the last. On February 19, 2021, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced a plan to consider all candidates, regardless of their race, gender, and, most importantly, physical limitations, to be astronauts. “Representing all parts of our society is a concern that we take very seriously,” said ESA Human and Robotic Exploration Director David Parker. “Diversity at ESA should not only address the origin, age, background or gender of our astronauts, but also perhaps physical disabilities.”
Congratulations, Hayley Arceneaux!
Resources: Phys.org, Inspiration4.com, St.Jude.org