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SpaceX announces plans for first all-civilian space flight to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

St. Jude patient Zahaan, seen here at age 7 in 2017, plays with a plane and rocketship toy at...
St. Jude patient Zahaan, seen here at age 7 in 2017, plays with a plane and rocketship toy at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital(Peter Barta | ALSAC)
Updated: Feb. 2, 2021 at 5:54 AM EST
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(CBS News) - Jared Isaacman, a wealthy businessman and pilot, is chartering a four-seat SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for what will be the first fully commercial, non-government piloted flight to orbit, SpaceX and the entrepreneur announced Monday. The mission will benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

The flight, named Inspiration4, will be commanded by Isaacman, 37, who is reserving two seats for St. Jude and one for an entrepreneur who will be selected in an independently judged competition.

One of the St. Jude seats will be awarded to a frontline health care worker and the other to the winner of a national fundraising campaign that will attempt to raise $200 million for the famed research center. Isaacman promised diversity, indicating a female health care worker has already been selected.

“St. Jude’s mission is not about rockets or space exploration, it’s about treating some of the most heart wrenching conditions that any parent could imagine,” Isaacman said during a teleconference with SpaceX founder Elon Musk. “And if we’re going to continue making advances up there in space, then we have an obligation to do the same down here on Earth.

“So one seat will go to a frontline health care worker and the other will be awarded through a national fundraising campaign that begins today and runs through the month of February. Our goal is to raise over $200 million, and I’m contributing the first $100 million to this great effort.”

He also said he will cover applicable tax obligations for the selected health care worker.

Said Musk: “This is a stepping stone on the way towards providing access to space for all.”

“Things necessarily start off real expensive, because it’s new technology at low volume, low production rates,” he said. “And so we actually need people who are willing and able to pay the high prices initially, in order to make it affordable, long term, for everyone.”

Asked if he ever intends to fly in space aboard a Crew Dragon himself at some point, he said “I will be on a flight one day, but not this one.”

The Inspiration4 mission will be unveiled to the public during the SuperBowl with a first quarter television commercial calling attention to St. Jude and the fund-raising initiative.

Unlike a mission announced last week in which Houston-based Axiom Space plans to send four private citizens to the International Space Station during an eight-day mission, Isaacman’s flight has no destination other than low-Earth orbit.

After circling the globe for several days, the capsule is expected to plunge back to Earth and splash down in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Canaveral. All four crew members will undergo medical screening and receive extensive training in spacecraft procedures and emergency operations.

“SpaceX is targeting no earlier than the fourth quarter of this year for Falcon 9′s launch of Inspiration4, the world’s first all-commercial astronaut mission to orbit from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center,” SpaceX said on its website.

“Jared Isaacman, founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, is donating the three seats alongside him aboard Dragon to individuals from the general public who will be announced in the weeks ahead.”

Isaacman said the three seats he is donating will be given to crew members selected to represent the “mission pillars” of leadership, hope, generosity and prosperity.

“The big focus is what we aim to raise for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, but look at every one of the crew members and what they represent in terms of the mission pillars,” Isaacman said.

The front-line health care worker will represent hope while someone making a significant donation to St. Jude will be showing generosity. An entrepreneur selected in a national competition will represent prosperity.

“The three crew members we’re selecting come from everyday walks of life, including a front-line health care worker who’s committed to helping kids fight cancer,” Isaacman said. “Someone who visits our mission website and makes a donation, and an aspiring entrepreneur building a business. And what they don’t know is that 30 days from now they’re going to get fitted for a spacesuit.”

SpaceX’s ability to launch private space missions is rooted in NASA’s drive to encourage development of commercial spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, ending the agency’s sole reliance on Russia for post-shuttle space transportation.

In 2014, after a series of competitions, NASA announced that Boeing and SpaceX would share $6.8 billion to develop independent space taxis, the first new U.S. crewed spacecraft since the 1970s.

Under a $2.6 billion contract, SpaceX built a crewed version of its Dragon cargo ship that rides into orbit atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing’s Starliner was developed under a $4.2 billion contract and relies on United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets.

SpaceX launched a piloted test flight to the space station last May and the first operational flight last October. Boeing’s first piloted mission is expected later this year.

Unlike past piloted spacecraft that were built to NASA specifications and were owned and operated by the government, Boeing and SpaceX retained ownership of the new “commercial crew” ships and both companies are free to launch non-government missions.

The cost of a non-NASA seat aboard the Crew Dragon has not been revealed, but it is reportedly in the neighborhood of $55 million per “ticket.”

The Axiom flight to the space station will be commanded by former astronaut Mike Lopez-Alegria, now an Axiom vice president. His crewmates are American entrepreneur Larry Connor, Canadian businessman Mark Pathy and Israeli entrepreneur Eytan Stibbe.

Actor Tom Cruise is also rumored to be considering a space flight as part of a movie venture, but no details have emerged.