MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Hayley Arceneaux is going to space to show what life after pediatric cancer can be: one without limits.
Arceneaux, a 29-year-old cancer survivor working at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, will be one of four people on the first all-civilian mission to space, scheduled to launch in 2021’s fourth quarter.
A central goal of the mission, named Inspiration4, is to raise funds and awareness for St. Jude.
“I think for my patients to see someone just like them and for other survivors to see somebody who’s been through cancer going to space, I think it’s going to mean so much for them,” Arceneaux said in an interview Tuesday.
Arceneaux will become the youngest American in space — beating NASA record-holder Sally Ride by over two years — when she blasts off this fall with entrepreneur and mission commander Jared Isaacman and two yet-to-be-chosen contest winners.
Inspiration4 has a St. Jude donation goal of $100 million, in addition to the $100 million donated by Isaacman. The hospital treats children with life-threatening diseases like cancer at no cost to their families and researches cures.
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Arceneaux, who grew up in St. Francisville, Louisiana, was acquainted with St. Jude well before she began working there.
“Working with the kids, it means so much because these kids are so brave,” she said. “They’re going through a big, life-changing thing… I do share with them I was a former patient, especially with new kids. I love getting to share that with them.”
St. Jude offered her the seat on Inspiration4 in early January. Arceneaux immediately said yes, shortly before calling her mom to discuss the opportunity. Another call with her brother and sister-in-law, who are both aerospace engineers, comforted her on space travel safety.
“I do consider myself an adventurer, and so while I never thought I would be going to space, it fits, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.
Arceneaux will be joined by three others on Inspiration4.
Isaacman, founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments and an experienced jet pilot, is leading the mission. He has flown in over 100 airshows as part of the Black Diamond Jet Team and is rated to fly commercial and military aircraft, per his Inspiration4 biography.
“I have a hard time with us making progress in the world and beyond our world, like what we aim to do with Inspiration4, without trying to take care of some of these horrific and significant problems we have here on Earth,” he said. “That’s why St. Jude had to play such an important part of this mission.”
The other two crew members have not been named yet. They will represent the St. Jude mission pillars of generosity, occupied by the winner of a sweepstakes open through February, and prosperity, occupied by an entrepreneur using the Shift4Shop platform. Arceneaux and Isaacman represent the mission pillars of hope and leadership, respectively.
Rick Shadyac Jr., president and CEO of ALSAC, St. Jude’s fundraising and awareness organization, said Arceneaux embodied what they were looking for the mission’s “hope” seat: a former St. Jude patient now serving its mission professionally, who also represents a younger generation.
“She’s a deep inspiration,” Shadyac said. “I’ve seen her speak and just be there for our patients and for our patients’ families, and she is so inspiring. You put all this together — and this mission is Inspiration4, right? — and she fit all the criteria.”
Isaacman said he “can’t think of a better crew member” for Inspiration4 than Arceneaux, noting her “incredibly powerful story” and family’s aerospace background.
SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by CEO Elon Musk, will provide training for the mission’s crew. The training starting in March will essentially be identical to a NASA training curriculum, ranging from the academics of orbital mechanics to emergency procedures, Isaacman said.
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The historic mission launches at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions formerly embarked, with help from the reusable Falcon 9 rocket. The crew will travel weightless across a low earth orbit at more than 17,000 miles an hour.
Arceneaux and company will be inside the Dragon spacecraft, which has a height of 26.7 feet and a diameter of 13 feet, during their journey. The tight quarters bring added importance to getting crew members comfortable with each other, Isaacman said.
More details regarding the contents of the mission will be released soon, Isaacman said, but he noted they “intend to stay busy up there.” He wants to conduct experiments and bring a special payload into orbit while in space, with St. Jude in the front of the line as far as influencing what that will entail.
“St. Jude has the first priority on payload and experiments,” he said. “They’ll give us an idea on what they’d like to have up there, and we’ll alter the spacecraft configuration to accommodate it.”
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As of Friday, St. Jude had already raised more than $9.3 million in donations through the sweepstakes. The donations will go toward the general needs of St. Jude, which costs more than $1 billion a year just to operate it, Shadyac said.
Shadyac said he hopes cancer patients will see Arceneaux’s journey and be inspired “to fight this good fight as best as they possibly can.”
Besides being part of the first all-civilian crew to space, Arceneaux will also make history by being the first person with a prosthesis to go into orbit, according to St. Jude.
Friends and coworkers who know of her looming mission — it was limited before Monday, when her participation was officially announced — have been supportive and eager to see the launch, she said.
In addition to current St. Jude patients, Arceneaux said she is doing the mission for the friends she has lost due to cancer.
“We have not gotten to 100% (pediatric cancer) survival rate yet, and I think we will, and I think St. Jude is going to be the one to do it,” she said. “Until then, we have to fund research. This mission is really going to get us there.”
Contributing: Marcia Dunn, Associated Press
Follow reporter Max Garland on Twitter @MaxGarlandTypes
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