As It Happens

This 29-year-old cancer survivor is joining the 1st all-civilian space mission

As a little girl, Hayley Arceneaux wanted to go to space. But as a cancer survivor with a titanium prosthesis in one leg, she figured that dream was out of her reach.

Hayley Arceneaux's journey raising funds for the children's hospital where she works and was once a patient

Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old cancer survivor and physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee, will be part of the first all-civilian space mission. (St. Jude Children's Research Hospital)

Hayley Arceneaux has wanted to go to space since she was a kid. But as a cancer survivor with a titanium prosthesis in one leg, she figured that dream was out of her reach.

That is, until she got a phone call in January offering her a spot on the first all-civilian space mission.

"They asked if I wanted to go to space, and immediately I said yes," the 29-year-old physician assistant told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong. 

Arceneaux will be the medical officer aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, which is set to orbit Earth after takeoff on a Falcon 9 rocket planned for later this year in Florida. The private company SpaceX was founded by business mogul Elon Musk.

Arceneaux's mission, called Inspiration4, is being funded by Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire who made his fortune in tech and fighter jets. It will also serve as a fundraiser for the children's hospital where Arceneaux works, and was once a patient.

"Assembling a unique and diverse crew whose personal stories and values will inspire people everywhere is at the heart of the Inspiration4 mission," Isaacman, said in a press release.

"As I've spent time with Hayley in the earliest days of mission prep, she's everything we want our team to represent — she's interested in the world around her, devoted to caring for others and hopeful for a better future for all of us. She already inspires me, and I'm certain she'll inspire many others as they get to know her in the course of our mission."

Arceneaux will begin training for the mission with SpaceX later this month. (St. Jude Children's Research Hospital)

There will be no astronauts on board — just Arceneaux, Isaacman and two other yet-to-be announced contest winners. 

But Arceneaux says she's not afraid.

"I think my mom was a little nervous to hear that, but she's come with me on one of my trips to SpaceX, and after going and meeting the team, she felt so much better," Arceneaux said.

"SpaceX is going to make sure that we're really well-prepared, we're going to be ready. And so I'm not nervous about that."

Isaacman will serve as the mission's flight commander. The Dragon spacecraft will fly autonomously along a customized flight path while being monitored by SpaceX mission control. Isaacman, who is a pilot, can override the system in an emergency.

Arceneaux says she first got the idea of going to space when she was about 10 years old and visited NASA headquarters with her family. 

"I got to see where the astronauts trained, and of course, I wanted to be an astronaut after that. Like, who doesn't? I think all kids and adults, when they go to NASA, want to be astronauts," she said. 

"But a few months later, I was diagnosed with cancer, and then my whole world shifted."

'A death sentence'

She had just got her black belt in taekwondo when she started experiencing knee pain. The pain turned into swelling, and then her mom noticed a strange lump above her knee.

"She took me to the doctor, and I'll never forget it. The doctor came in and said, 'This is bone cancer,' and my parents and I, we all just burst into tears," she said.

"I remember at age 10, everyone I had known with cancer had died. And I thought this cancer diagnosis was a death sentence."

Arceneaux says the year she spent undergoing chemotherapy at St. Jude made her who she is today. (St. Jude Children's Research Hospital)

She says she regained her sense of hope at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., where she began her road to recovery. She spent a year there undergoing chemotherapy, and then had surgery to remove the tumour in her leg.

"That was the most important year of my life. It definitely made me who I am," she said. "The employees became my family. And since I was 10 years old, all I've ever wanted to do is work at S. Jude. And now I do."

Arceneaux is a physician assistant at St. Jude, working with leukemia and lymphoma patients in the same boat she was once in.

Arceneaux now works as a physician assistant at the same hospital where she was once a patient. ( St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital)

Her upcoming space mission is being used to raise $200 million ($250 million Cdn) for the hospital, half of which will come from Isaacman's personal donation.

"I actually was sitting down with a patient last weekend and she was telling me how discouraged she was that she can't run or jump. And I told her I can't run or jump either because of this rod in my leg. But that's not stopping me from going to space," Arceneaux said.

"I hope that it inspires them to dream big and to not put limits on themselves."

The SpaceX Dragon capsule will take off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida sometime at the end of 2021, and orbit the planet for a few days before re-entering Earth's atmosphere and landing off the coast of Florida.

Arceneaux says she's working with SpaceX to set up a video call with the kids at St. Jude while she's in space. 

"I am just so excited to be able to actually show them what their future can look like," she said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. 

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