Why did the SpaceX raffle winner really give away his gold ticket to space?

Jan 30, 2022

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Remember when Elon Musk’s SpaceX made history in September 2021 by launching Inspiration 4, the world’s first all-civilian mission by a private spaceflight company?

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, carrying non-professional astronauts, launches from NASAs Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39A during the Inspiration4 mission in Merritt Island, Florida, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. A SpaceX rocket is set to launch four civilians into orbit for a three-day voyage circling the Earth, a new milestone in Elon Musk's quest to send everyday people to the cosmos, eventually establishing a colony on Mars. Photographer: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, carrying non-professional astronauts, launches from NASAs Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39A during the Inspiration4 mission in Merritt Island, Florida, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Shift4 Payment CEO and billionaire Jared Isaacman had purchased all four seats on that three-day space flight and set aside one seat for the winner of a sweepstake he created to benefit St. Jude Children’s Hospital.

43-year-old Kyle Hippchen, a Florida-based captain for Endeavor Air, a regional carrier for Delta Air Lines bought $600 worth of entries. His buddy and former roommate at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Chris “Hanks” Sembroski, bought $50 worth of tickets. As raffles go, neither thought they’d win, and they didn’t tell each other they’d each bought tickets.

Hippchen’s name ended up being drawn at random as the big winner from the final 72,000 entries. But it was Sembrowski who ended up taking the ride into space.

How that happened has been a mystery. Until now.

Turns out, Hippchen couldn’t take his fairly won seat on the SpaceX flight because, as he told AP during a recent visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, he exceeded the weight limit for the flight by 80 pounds.

The SpaceX sweepstakes rules stated that the winner could be no taller than 6-foot-6 and could weigh no more than 250 pounds.

And when he learned he’d won the out-of-this-world prize, the 5-foot-10 Hippchen weighed 330 pounds.

“I was trying to figure out how I could drop 80 pounds in six months, which, I mean, it’s possible, but it’s not the most healthy thing in the world to do,” he told AP.

Hippchen knew SpaceX needed to start measuring the civilian astronauts for the custom-fitted flight suits and the special capsule seats. As an aerospace engineer and pilot, he knew there were safety issues connected to the weight limit SpaceX had outlined.

So, with Isaacman’s permission, Hippchen picked someone else to take his seat: fellow space geek and college buddy Chris Sembrowski.

Related: SpaceX Will Fly This Man Around the Moon in 2023

As a thank-you, the alt-astronaut took some personal items into space for Hippchen, including a great uncle’s World War I purple heart. And, just before climbing into the SpaceX Dragon capsule, Sembroski used the launch tower phone to call Hippchen and tell him “I’m forever grateful.”

Down on the ground, Hippchen had been staying out of the news, but close to the action.

In April 2021, he joined Sembroski, Isaacman, and the two other astronauts chosen for the all-civilian crew to watch SpaceX launch astronauts heading to the International Space Station. And Hippchen was there at the Kennedy Space Center, on the VIP balcony, on September 15 when the private spaceflight company’s Falcon 9 rocket blasted off, sending the first all civilian crew into space.

And while it wasn’t the same as getting to be in orbit, during Sembroski’s flight Hippchen did get to experience weightlessness on a special zero-gravity plane along with friends and family of the crew. Hippchen declared that adventure “a blast,” but told AP he still hasn’t been able to bring himself to watch the Netflix series documenting the three-day SpaceX flight crewed by four civilian astronauts.

“It hurts too much,” he told AP, “I’m insanely disappointed. But it is what it is.”


Featured image of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launching from NASAs Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021 by Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

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