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From Space Camp to space, Inspiration4's Chris Sembroski readies for trip of a lifetime

Chris Sembroski's lifelong passion for space exploration will pay off with a trip to orbit Earth aboard the Inspiration4 mission.

Sembroski, a data engineer for Lockheed Martin and Air Force veteran, has been working in fields adjacent to space almost all his life. From high school when he would spend nights stargazing on the roof of the building to his days at college, building and launching model rockets, Sembroski is no stranger to space. 

Now he is launching to space with Inspiration4, which will fly Sembroski and three other crew members to orbit no earlier than Wednesday (Sept. 15) as part of an effort to raise awareness and money for St. Jude Research Children's Hospital in Tennessee.

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Chris Sembroski, the mission specialist for the Inspriation4 mission. (Image credit: Inspiration4/John Kraus)

While in college, Sembroski was a counselor for Space Camp and a volunteer with space lobbying organization ProSpace. After graduating, he served with the U.S. Air Force maintaining Minute III intercontinental ballistic missiles. Sembroski also served in Iraq in the mid-2000s. He then left the military to earn a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

"I always had that interest in solving problems and taking on challenges," Sembroski told Space.com in an interview, and a lifetime of amateur enthusiasm eventually led him to enter a contest for the Inspiration4 Earth-orbiting mission funded by tech billionaire Jared Isaacman, who chartered the flight which will take place aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle. (Sembroski's other crew members are contest winners Sian Proctor, a geoscientist, science communicator and artist, and Hayley Arceneaux, a St. Jude physician assistant and childhood cancer survivor.)

"It's just exciting for me to really be able to merge my professional career back into aerospace, doing the work that I do," Sembroski said. "Then to be a part of this Inspiration4 mission, it feels just so overwhelmingly satisfying and amazing. I feel so blessed that there was so much generosity forwarded to me to make this all happen."

The Inspiration4 crew set to launch on SpaceX's private orbital mission pose or a group photo ahead of their September 2021 launch. They are (from left): Shift4 entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, geoscientist Sian Proctor, bone cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux and data engineer Chris Sembroski.  (Image credit: John Kraus/Courtesy of Netflix)

Sembroski said being offered the orbital trip was a huge surprise, he said. "I knew I was not the most physically stellar fit person that you have out there, and I was okay with that," he said.

Until now, with his love for space, Sembroski has found satisfaction deploying his passion "behind the scenes," he said, especially as he encouraged Space Campers themselves to work to pursue their own aerospace dreams. He joked, saying that it was much like one of his pastimes in college, working backstage on stage lighting to illuminate the actors who got the audience's attention.

So how did this veteran, engineer space-enthusiast end up in a seat to actually fly to space?

Sembroski first heard of Inspiration4 while watching a Super Bowl commercial about the mission, for which he immediately took action. "My wife just rolled her eyes when she was looking at me over from the couch. I was sitting there on my phone and donating some funds to St. Jude, thinking, 'all right, I'll never go to space and I don't win things ever. So that's okay by me, but hey, I will get a neat little patch out of it.'"

Happy to have made a contribution to St. Jude, Sembroski went back to watching the football game, quickly forgetting about the chance for a spaceflight. "It wasn't until about a month later, when I was waking up on Saturday morning and taking care of my kids, getting ready to go pick up breakfast that my wife lets me know from upstairs: 'Hey, some Inspiration4 is calling you. What is that?'"

Inspiration4 astronaut Chris Sembroski tries out SpaceX's new cupola window for its Crew Dragon spacecraft before it was installed on the vehicle. (Image credit: Inspiration4)

While on the phone with what turned out to be Inspiration4 personnel, Sembroski said, he wanted to make sure that it wasn't actually a shady offer or someone trying to sell him on false pretenses, perhaps offering "some sort of extended warranty" in exchange for a space trip. But the call proved legitimate, and he sent in the requisite paperwork and did a screening Zoom call. He quickly found out that a friend had actually won the sweepstakes with their donation, but was unable to go and had recommended Sembroski for the spaceflight.

"It was just a shock of realization of what was happening that left me numb," Sembroski said. "I was just saying — the most boring reaction ever — 'wow, really cool, wow, so great, thank you.'" 

He added that, with his line of work, he has been through so many interviews over the years with security clearances that he wasn't yet "really comprehending" what was being offered to him, but as he passed a medical test and started in earnest on his training, the reality began to sink in.

Sembroski's role as a mission specialist with Inspiration4 includes cargo operations, which entails aspects such as getting the center of gravity correct for re-entry, which entails packing all the space items correctly per SpaceX's packing plan. "I'll be there for that and to help conduct experiments," he said. 

With his long-time experience studying space, Sembroski noted that he feels ready to take on the mission risks as they come. 

"There are so many different safeguards that have been put in the testing process that they [SpaceX] went through," he said, "so I don't have any concerns about that. I've also met the technicians on the ground in Florida and in California. Incredible people, incredibly talented, and many of them are veterans. They're all highly motivated and highly detail-oriented individuals that really give you a lot of confidence in the work."

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.