Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant and former bone cancer patient, will become the youngest American in space later this year, when she participates in the first SpaceX private flight.
St Jude Children’s Research hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where Arceneaux was once a patient and now works, announced on Monday that she will blast off later this year with the entrepreneur Jared Isaacman and two contest winners.
Arcenaux will be the first person with a prosthesis in space. When she was 10, she had surgery at St Jude to replace her knee and get a titanium rod in her left thigh. She still limps and suffers leg pain but has been cleared for flight by SpaceX. She’ll serve as the crew’s medical officer.
“My battle with cancer really prepared me for space travel,” Arceneaux said. “It made me tough, and then also I think it really taught me to expect the unexpected and go along for the ride.”
She wants to show her young patients and other cancer survivors that “the sky is not even the limit anymore”.
“It’s going to mean so much to these kids to see a survivor in space,” she said.
Isaacman announced his space mission on 1 February, pledging to raise $200m for St Jude, half his own contribution. As the flight’s self-appointed commander, he offered one of the four SpaceX Dragon capsule seats to St Jude.
Without alerting staff, St Jude chose Arceneaux from among the “scores” of hospital and fundraising employees who had once been patients and could represent the next generation, said Rick Shadyac, president of St Jude’s fundraising organization.
Arceneaux was at home in Memphis when she got the “out of the blue” call in January asking if she’d represent St Jude in space. Her immediate response: “Yes! Yes! Please!”
But first she wanted to run it past her mother in St Francisville, Louisiana. Next she reached out to her brother and sister-in-law, both aerospace engineers in Huntsville, Alabama, who “reassured me how safe space travel is”.
A lifelong space fan, Arceneaux insists those who know her won’t be surprised by her new role. She’s plunged on a bungee swing in New Zealand and ridden camels in Morocco. And she loves roller coasters. Isaacman, who flies fighter jets for a hobby, considers her a perfect fit.
“It’s not all supposed to be about getting people excited to be astronauts someday, which is certainly cool,” said Isaacman, 38. “It’s also supposed to be about an inspiring message of what we can accomplish here on Earth.”
He has two more crew members to select and plans to reveal them in March. One will be a sweepstakes winner; anyone donating to St Jude this month is eligible. So far, more than $9m has come in, according to Shadyac. The other seat will go to a business owner who uses Shift4Payments, Isaacman’s Allentown, Pennsylvania, credit card-processing company.
Liftoff is targeted around October at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center, with the capsule orbiting Earth two to four days. Isaacman is not divulging how much the flight will cost him.