Future spaceflyer Haley Arceneaux's life changed quickly in 2021. In January, she was a physician assistant at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, working on the front lines of the pandemic. By September, the 29-year-old was completing training to fly to space with the Inspiration4 mission.
"Made it to Cape Canaveral for launch week!" Arceneaux said in a Sept. 9 update on Twitter. "We flew fighter jets into Kennedy Space Center this morning and landed on the historic runway that space shuttles landed on. So cool!!"
The change was unimaginable for Arceneaux, who was personally invited for a spaceflight after tech billionaire Jared Isaacman chartered a three-day flight aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon to raise awareness and money for the research hospital.
Arceneaux last dreamed of being an astronaut as a child but put the dream away when harsh reality intervened.
"We actually went to NASA just a few months before I was diagnosed with cancer," Arceneaux told Space.com in an interview. "I got to see where the astronauts train. I think every kid looks at that and wants to be an astronaut, [but] a few months later I was diagnosed with cancer. All I've ever wanted to do since I was 10 is work at St. Jude."
Even if Arceneaux chose to pursue an astronaut dream, it would have been a major uphill battle, she pointed out. "I could never have been an astronaut," she said. "Until now, astronauts have really had to be physically perfect, and I don't fall into that category. I have a metal rod in my leg from when they saved my leg … that was part of what made that phone call [about Inspiration4] so shocking. But I couldn't be more excited."
In addition to being the youngest American to go to space with this mission, Arceneaux will also be the first person with a prosthesis to go to space.
It's been a six-month whirlwind of space training for Arceneaux, who will be joined in space by Isaacman and Shift 4 contest winners Sian Proctor (a geoscientist, space artist and science communicator who won her seat with an inspiration social media video) and Chris Sembroski (a Lockheed Martin employee, former Space Camp counselor and Air Force veteran.) All money raised through the contest was for the benefit of St. Jude, and the crew plan an ambitious health-focused science mission during their three days in Earth orbit.
"A lot of [training] has been academics and studying on our own, really learning the nominal overview of the mission and the ins and outs of our spacecraft," Arceneaux said during the interview, recorded in June when she was still just partway through the training.
"On top of that, we've done the typical astronaut training with centrifuge training. We're going to do some water survival training and the hyperbaric chamber is coming up. Also, our commander Jared has had some really cool ideas of additional training to bond us as a crew," she said. "In May, we hiked up Mount Rainier and we camped … for a couple of days and definitely got out of our comfort zone and really bonded as a crew."
Inspiration4 hopes to raise $200 million for St. Jude, and as a former patient, Arceneaux said she couldn't be more thrilled with the focus. "We're trying to get closer and closer to curing childhood cancer. Absolutely that's incredibly special, both personally and really as a reminder of what the mission is all about," she said.
Arceneaux, who plans to talk with some of her patients from orbit, said she plans to show "some really fun pictures and videos" to the kids. Her overall message to them, she said, is "they can do anything they want to do. I feel like that's why I was put on this Earth."
Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.