Everett’s Christopher Sembroski always loved looking up. He grew up stargazing, learned to launch model rockets, but couldn’t fathom ever becoming a space traveler.
In all of history, fewer than 600 people have gone into space. “I had a better shot at getting into the NBA,” the 41-year-old data engineer and father of two girls said Friday.
Yet if all goes according to the plans of a tech billionaire, Sembroski is just months away from three days in space. On a mission called Inspiration4, he is to be launched, in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, along with three others. The hope is to launch sometime after mid-September.
Jared Isaacman, the CEO of Shift4 Payments, is commander of the philanthropic mission aimed at raising millions of dollars for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. The high-flying Isaacman, who has piloted military jets in airshows, is paying for what’s billed as the first all-civilian mission to space.
If you watched Super Bowl commercials Feb. 7, you may vaguely remember one that started with an angelic voice singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” It ended with an invitation to “visit Inspiration4.com for your chance to go to space.”
Although he considers himself a “space geek,” Sembroski hadn’t heard of Inspiration4 before seeing the ad.
“I had no clue about any of this,” said Sembroski, a reliability engineer with Lockheed Martin who works from home. He’s also an Air Force veteran, once stationed in Montana with the 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron. His wife, Erin Duncan-Sembroski, teaches sixth-grade English at Explorer Middle School in the Mukilteo district. Their daughters are 3 and 9.
Life has taken an out-of-this-world turn for Sembroski, who enjoys hiking and other outdoor fun.
Seeing the Super Bowl ad, he donated — not a fortune, but he didn’t share how much — to the St. Jude cause. That put his name in the running. But it was a friend who’d attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida with Sembroski who actually won the chance for the low-earth-orbit mission.
That friend, who’s keeping a low profile, decided against going.
By early March, Sembroski was on a dizzying journey toward space flight. He learned in a Zoom meeting with his college pal and Isaacman that he’d be filling the seat his friend had declined. Within days, Sembroski traveled to the SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, California, founded by Tesla billionaire Elon Musk, and to UCLA Medical Center for physical tests.
Along with Isaacman and Sembroski, the Dragon crew includes pilot Sian Proctor and Hayley Arceneaux. A survivor of childhood bone cancer, Arceneaux works at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as a physician assistant.
At the National Aerospace Training and Research Center in Pennsylvania, the crew experienced centrifuge training. The NASTAR Center specializes in training for commercial spaceflight. In what almost seems like a wild carnival ride, the trainee is seated in a capsule at the end of a long arm — and the thing rotates rapidly.
“It’s so exhilarating and a lot of fun,” Sembroski said of the high G-force training. The gravitational pull helps prepare a person for the rigors of a launch, he said.
Another heady experience — the publicity — came March 30. That’s when the world learned that Sembroski and Proctor, an Arizona community college instructor and space enthusiast, would join Isaacman and Arceneaux on the mission. The New York Times, NBC’s “Today” show and other news outlets prominently featured the crew.
The crew members’ seats are labeled, with Sembroski representing “Generosity,” Arceneaux standing for “Hope” and Proctor for “Prosperity.” One message of the mission, Sembroski said, is that you don’t need to have deep pockets to show generosity.
“It is my hope that this flight will inspire others to pay that generosity forward by pledging their support for St. Jude and encouraging kids to dream the impossible, ushering in a new era of space exploration open to all,” he said in a statement.
Sembroski grew up in Kannapolis, North Carolina, outside Charlotte. As a teenager, he took to late-night stargazing from the roof of his high school. By college, he had moved on to launching high-powered model rockets. And he volunteered with ProSpace, a lobbying effort that promoted legislation to help foster space travel and clear the way for companies such as SpaceX.
About 20 years ago, Sembroski was helping inspire kids as a Space Camp counselor. The camp, part of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, once had a Florida location. It was there that Sembroski helped conduct simulated Space Shuttle missions and encouraged kids to concentrate on STEM subjects.
“Many of our children who come to Space Camp want to be astronauts,” said Pat Ammons, Space Camp’s senior communications director. “As commercial space develops, this is sort of a hope to all those who carry that dream.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, who was scheduled to return from the International Space Station this weekend, is a Space Camp alumna, Ammons said.
Along with maintaining Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, Sembroski was deployed to Iraq while in the Air Force. He and his family moved here in 2007 after he left active duty. He said they moved from Great Falls, Montana, because they love this area “and all the things people do in the Pacific Northwest.”
During those three days in orbit — at an altitude of about 335 miles, more than 100 miles higher than the space station — Sembroski said he’s most excited about “looking back at earth.” He’ll be taking an iPad and plans to keep a journal. Splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean will await the space travelers.
To become a civilian astronaut, Sembroski is working with a physical trainer to build strength. He’ll spend time with the Inspiration4 crew, and do some mountaineering. He’ll keep his Lockheed Martin job, and of course the duties and joys of fatherhood. The 9-year-old knows what’s up, he said, but not so much her little sister.
Sembroski recently spent an evening making s’mores with his family around their fire pit. It’s a regimen far different than what those early astronauts, chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” endured. “It’s a side gig I’ll do on weekends,” Sembroski said.
He didn’t see it coming, but at 41 he’s about to be a spaceman.
“It’s surreal,” he said.
Julie Muhlstein: firstname.lastname@example.org
Information about the Inspiration4 mission: inspiration4.com