As far as Hayley Arceneaux could see, she had already fulfilled her lifelong dream: to work at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, helping kids get the lifesaving treatment she received there.
But the 29-year-old physician assistant was due for another dream, one that faded after she was diagnosed with bone cancer at 10 years old.
Going into space.
On Monday, St. Jude Research Hospital announced that Arceneaux will be part of the world’s first all-civilian mission to space. She will join a four-person crew on the flight, called Inspiration4, alongside 38-year-old tech billionaire and pilot Jared Isaacman, who purchased the flight from SpaceX and is donating seats to the general public. The mission, tentatively scheduled for later this year, aims to raise $200 million for St. Jude.
Each seat will symbolize a different value or principle. “Generosity” and “prosperity” are yet to be filled. Arceneaux will represent “hope.”
Fewer than 600 people have ever gone to space, placing Arceneaux in an exclusive club.
Astronauts must learn to master panic. Become unmoored from gravity. Withstand mind-bending levels of acceleration.
According to Arceneaux, being a survivor of childhood cancer has already prepared her for some of these experiences.
“It made me tough,” she said in a video chat this week. “It definitely taught me that life has unexpected moments and to go along with it with a positive attitude.”
I spoke to Arceneaux about the historic mission, and what it means to her and the people around her.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anne Branigin: When did you first start dreaming of going to space?
Hayley Arceneaux: I actually got to visit NASA in Houston a few months before I was diagnosed with cancer. I was 9 at the time and I got to see where the astronauts train. It was very glamorous and I wanted to be an astronaut after that, like every other kid. But then I was diagnosed with cancer a few months later and my whole world shifted. And really, ever since I was treated at St. Jude as a kid, all I’ve ever wanted to do is work at St. Jude.
Anne Branigin: How did you find out you were going?
Hayley Arceneaux: I actually got the call from two people who work with St. Jude. They told me they were going to call me with a new opportunity. I remember going into this call kind of nervous because they were being extremely vague and I felt like it was something big, but never could I have imagined what they asked me. They gave me the background of the mission and said, “Do you want to go to space?” And immediately I said yes.
I actually remember looking at my hands and thinking, like, is this real life? I remember touching my face and everything. I called my mom and she was shocked as I was. I told her, “I can’t pass up this opportunity.” And she agreed.
My brother and sister-in-law are actually aerospace engineers. And so I called them next and they reassured me how safe space travel is. And they were supportive. So I was able to give St. Jude that definite yes. They kind of encouraged me to sleep on it, but I was like, “Nope, I’m committed. Put my name down.”
Anne Branigin: I was watching a morning show interview with your parents, who I think seemed a bit nervous that there were no professional astronauts joining you. How has your family been talking about your upcoming trip?
Hayley Arceneaux: My dad passed away from cancer two years ago, so my family is my mom, my brother and sister-in-law. My mom actually got to come with me last week and she got to meet the lead engineers, and she’s feeling so much better about things. She has told me that she trusts SpaceX and she’s really excited. We all are.
Anne Branigin: What do you know about the training?
Hayley Arceneaux: It starts next month when our third and fourth crew members are selected. The first thing that we’re going to do is centrifuge training — you know, [like] those amusement park rides that go really fast — to get our bodies used to the G-forces that we’re going to experience with launch and reentry. And then we’re just going to be prepared for any possible situation. We’re going to spend a lot of time in the Dragon [the SpaceX ship] simulator and I’ll get some additional training on top of that, because I’m the medical officer of this flight.
Anne Branigin: Oh, that’s incredible. What does that mean, to be the medical officer on the flight?
Hayley Arceneaux: I will be trained for any possible in-flight medical situation, and I do have emergency experience before I got my job. I worked in the emergency department [at St. Jude] for three years. But when I heard this title of medical officer, I was like, “That is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Anne Branigin: Are you allowed to bring anything with you into space?
Hayley Arceneaux: Yes! As long as it’s not flammable. I’ve tried to think about what I want to bring to space, and I really don’t know. I do know I want to bring something to honor my dad.
Anne Branigin: You’re the first in quite a few respects. You’re a survivor of childhood cancer, you’ll be the youngest American and the first American with a prosthesis. Which of these firsts means the most to you?
Hayley Arceneaux: Being the first pediatric cancer survivor just because of what it’s going to show our kids. I really hope that it inspires them to dream big and to not limit themselves. Going through cancer, you’re so focused on the appointments you have that day and the pills you have to take that day, it can be really difficult to look toward the future.
I went back to work yesterday for the first time since the announcement, and so many of my kids said they wanted to be astronauts. I told them, you can be. If I can do it, they can do it.
Anne Branigin: One thing you’ve said you plan on doing while in space is continuing to have video calls with St. Jude patients. Why is that so important for you?
Hayley Arceneaux: Kids are so visual, and I think it will almost be a tangible way for them to see their future and what they can do, and what’s possible. Also, kids love space. The kids that I’ve gotten to share this with have been so excited. So we’re going to make this not only just a fun experience, but hopefully something that inspires them in the process.
Anne Branigin: People who’ve looked upon Earth from space, they describe it as this big perspective-shifting, almost spiritual experience. Do you have any expectations of what that might be like for you?
Hayley Arceneaux: I have read about the overview effect, and how it’s almost overwhelming and life-changing. And I know that it’s going to change me. I have such a love for travel because I love to meet other cultures and just being able to see the world without any borders. I think it’s going to be so powerful.
Anne Branigin: In your work, have you experienced a version of that kind of overview effect?
Hayley Arceneaux: Whenever I share with my patients that I was a former patient, I hope that they can see their future. I was in their shoes and I couldn’t look forward. And now that I have stepped back, I feel like I’m kind of in overview, being able to see how everything has worked out. That’s what I try to convey to the kids, that their future is bigger than what they can see or feel in that present moment.
I was talking to one of my teen patients since this announcement, and she said now is the first time she’s really started to think about her future. And I just try to reiterate that she can do what she wants to do.
Astronauts have had to be physically perfect until this point, and that’s not a category I fall into. I definitely never thought I’d be able to go to space. So this mission is taking away so many limitations. I hope that even if it’s not space travel, whatever my patients want to do when they grow up, I hope they feel like they’re not limited.
Anne Branigin: What do you think your father would say about you going to space? Is there anything you wish you could tell him about this experience?
Hayley Arceneaux: My dad was the kind of father who was proud of anything I did, and I know he would be especially proud of me for going on this mission and everything it represents.
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, we worked toward our black belts together. We had to break boards to go onto each additional belt, and after he died I found one of the old boards I had broken and on it he wrote, “I’m more proud of you for conquering your fear than for earning your brown belt.”
I know he would be more proud of me for going out of my comfort zone into this new experience and hopefully helping kids along the way, than for going to space itself.