Since her childhood cancer diagnosis, Baton Rouge native Hayley Arceneaux has been a spokesperson for how St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital saved her life and countless others.
Now, she’ll take her story to the ultimate platform — outer space.
Arceneaux has been chosen to be part of the first all-civilian space flight, named Inspiration4.
On the history-making flight, the 29-year-old will set lots of other records: the first American civilian woman in space, the youngest American in space, the first person with an artificial joint, the first cancer survivor and, she believes, the first Cajun.
“What an incredible honor this is for me to represent cancer survivors in this way,” Arceneaux said. “Until now, astronauts have been physically perfect. This mission is changing the mindset of what an astronaut has to look like. Not only is it going to mean so much to the kids to know that all of the people that are donating are helping them but also being able to see a survivor in space.”
“I never thought I’d able to go to space… this mission is changing things.”— TODAY (@TODAYshow) February 22, 2021
Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old cancer survivor who has been selected as a civilian member of the @SpaceX Inspiration4 crew, joins us for her first official interview as a civilian astronaut. pic.twitter.com/kJucPacAma
Arceneaux and three others who have never been in space will be launched on SpaceX’s two-stage Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center and orbit Earth for about three days before a water landing off the Florida coast. The date is yet to be determined but could come as early as October.
“I just can’t think of a better brand ambassador representing St. Jude and representing the spirit of hope on this mission than Hayley,” said Jared Isaacman, who arranged and will command the voyage.
This mission is the brainchild of Isaacman, the 37-year-old founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, a payments processing company. The billionaire also is a commercial- and military-rated jet pilot, and, in 2008 and 2009, he flew Speed-Around-The-World flights that raised money and awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
This time, it’s to benefit St. Jude.
Isaacman, who purchased the flight from SpaceX for an undisclosed sum, has already donated half of the $200 million fundraising goal to St. Jude, which performs cancer research and offers medical services at no charge to patients. He offered two of the three other seats to a front-line worker — Arceneaux — and to a St. Jude donor. For a chance to join Arceneaux and Isaacman, donate through the inspiration4.com/donate portal in February. The last seat will go to a yet-to-be-chosen entrepreneur.
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“I just know how lucky I’ve been in life,” said Isaacman, who has no childhood cancers in his family. “Some don’t get a chance to grow up and experience anything like what I’ve been fortunate to experience, and that bothers me. That’s a big problem, and I feel like we need to do something about it.”
Arceneaux was one of those children cured at St. Jude in Memphis, Tennessee, where she now works as a physician assistant helping patients with leukemia and lymphoma. She said she learned about the space mission in December from officials with the hospital’s fundraising organization.
“They asked if I wanted to be on board, and I was shocked but immediately said, ‘Yes, yes, please!’” said Arceneaux, who then called her mother and broke the news.
“She said, ‘You cannot pass this up. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’” Arceneaux recalled.
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The daughter of Colleen and the late Howard Arceneaux, she grew up in St. Francisville and was 10 years old when she was diagnosed in 2002 with osteosarcoma in her left femur just above the knee. Her treatment at St. Jude included chemotherapy and a then-breakthrough surgery in which most of her femur was removed and replaced with a prosthetic device that can expand without more surgery as she grew.
While at St. Jude, Arceneaux became an ambassador for the organization, telling her story to raise funds and awareness for the research hospital. She returned to the hospital for continuing care and became a summer intern in the Pediatric Oncology Education program in 2013 before becoming a physician assistant, which she calls her “dream job.”
Arceneaux said she's had no second thoughts since agreeing to the trip.
“There is nothing they could have told me that would have kept me from going,” she said. “I realized how monumental it was but also what a big honor it was and what an incredible honor this is for St. Jude.”
Arceneaux has spent time with Isaacman twice at SpaceX headquarters in California going over plans for the mission. SpaceX will guide the mission from the ground, but Isaacman will be in charge should the spacecraft need to be controlled while in space.
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“He’s making safety his No. 1 priority,” Arceneaux said. “He’s just such a natural commander and leader. He was born to command a mission in space. I just completely trust him.”
Training will begin in earnest once the final two astronauts are chosen, Arceneaux said. During the mission, Arceneaux said she expects to contact her patients from space, providing them with a vivid example that cancer doesn’t mean they can’t have a great future.