Hayley Arceneaux's journey to space has begun.

Arceneaux, a Baton Rouge native, blasted off Wednesday night from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, as part of Inspiration4, history's first orbital space flight without a professional astronaut aboard. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 39A — starting point for many Apollo and space shuttle missions — at 7:03 p.m. CDT into a nearly cloudless sky. They achieved orbit less than 10 minutes later.

Arceneaux, 29, joins businessman-philanthropist Jared Isaacman, who paid an undisclosed sum to book the flight; geoscientist Sian Proctor; and aerospace industry worker Chris Sembroski on a three-day trip 357 miles above the Earth's surface.

As the bright glow of the rocket engines pierced the darkness, Arceneaux's friends who had come to witness the moment became emotional.

“We all didn’t expect to cry, but we all immediately were in such awe that we all embraced each other and all kind of boo-hooed a little bit," said Courtney Major, who attended school with Arceneaux at St. Joseph Academy and Southeastern Louisiana University. "There were lots of oohs and ahs and gasps of excitement all around.”

Amanda Pittman, who joined Major and about a dozen other friends viewing from just outside the Kennedy Space Center, said they'd never imagined anyone they knew would go to space before Arceneaux broke the news early this year.

“If anyone was going to do it, it was going to be Hayley," Pittman said. 

Arceneaux was chosen because of her association with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, which is the beneficiary of the space mission's $200 million fundraising goal, half of which Isaacman has already contributed.

Unlike short flights this summer that Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos took in their rockets that barely reached space, this flight will extend miles past the International Space Station and will splash down off Florida this weekend.

That height will give the astronauts a view of Earth that few have seen. Former astronaut and NASA administrator Charles Bolden flew a mission to the Hubble telescope.

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"It's a breathtaking difference," Bolden said in an interview on the SpaceX video feed an hour before the launch. "I just hope they'll take an opportunity to suck it up, enjoy it and visualize it so they can tell stories about it to their children and grandchildren and every kid they meet."

The fully automated Dragon capsule was previously used for SpaceX's second astronaut flight for NASA to the space station. Since this flight will not link with the space station, a large domed window has replaced the capsule's docking mechanisms. Isaacman, who is military-rated jet pilot, is the on-board commander.

Arceneaux, who grew up in St. Francisville,  is the daughter of Colleen and the late Howard Arceneaux, and her brother, Hayden, is an aerospace engineer living in Huntsville, Alabama.

She became a St. Jude patient after being diagnosed with bone cancer in 2002 when she was 10. 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 money 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.

Arceneaux is the youngest American, the first pediatric cancer survivor and the first person with an internal prosthesis to fly in space.

"Surviving cancer made me tough, and I think it taught me a lot about going outside of my comfort zone," Arceneaux told CBS Evening News anchor Norah O'Donnell.

Arceneaux has been designated as the crew's medical officer, and SpaceX says the crew will conduct scientific experiences during its three-day mission. Arceneaux said she plans to call her St. Jude patients while orbiting the Earth.

Arceneaux has been given the astronaut call sign NOVA, which she said stands for no ordinary vixen astronaut.

"They gave me a sassy name because I'm a sassy astronaut," Arceneaux said.


Email George Morris at gmorris@theadvocate.com.