KIRKLAND, Wash. — It’s been seven months since Chris Sembroski splashed down at the end of the world’s first all-civilian orbital space mission, but his drive to seek out new frontiers is still going strong.
The 42-year-old data engineer from Everett, Wash., won his spot on last September’s philanthropic Inspiration4 space trip thanks to a friend of his who won a lottery, but weighed too much to take advantage of the prize.
For months, Sembroski took time off from his day job at Lockheed Martin to train with his three crewmates: Jared Isaacman, the billionaire tech CEO who organized and paid for the mission; Hayley Arceneaux, a cancer survivor who now works for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; and Sian Proctor, a geology professor who parlayed her talents in art and business to win a “Shark Tank”-style contest.
Their training included a Mount Rainier climb, zero-G and high-G airplane rides, and hours upon hours of instruction from SpaceX. It all came to a climax with the foursome’s launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, followed by three days of experiments and outreach activities that raised more than $240 million for St. Jude.
A follow-up series of space missions, known as the Polaris Program, is expected to blaze more new trails for citizen astronauts — and generate even more contributions for cancer research.
Sembroski, meanwhile, is starting a new job as a data analytics engineer at DB Engineering in Redmond, Wash. In an interview with GeekWire, conducted last week during a space industry social event at SigmaDesign’s Kirkland office, Sembroski talked about how he found out he was getting a free trip to orbit, what he experienced during the mission, and what he expects from his next adventure.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Sembroski: “About 13 months ago, I had a very interesting Zoom call.”
GeekWire: That must have been one of the most memorable days of your life.
“Yeah, I keep replaying that one over and over again. I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to talk to Jared, preparing for my space interview, thinking that I’m still a part of a large pool of candidates. And then my friend Kyle [Hippchen] shows up on the call, too. And so now I’m thinking that I’m competing with him for this within this large pool of candidates. Like, do I throw him under the bus? But I absolutely do not. I chime in and say, ‘I’m surprised to see my friend Kyle here. We live in opposite corners of the country. It’s really great to see him. I haven’t talked to him a long time … how you doing?’
“Then Jared said, ‘Oh, that’s awesome. I’d like to hear more about that later, but, uh, we’re here to talk about Inspiration4.’ Finding out that I was given a trip to orbit — not just an up-and-down ride — I’m just sitting there in shock. When they told me, Kidd [Scott “Kidd” Poteet, one of Inspiration4’s mission directors] said he thought the internet connection had dropped, because I was just like, ‘Really??’
“Then we had all these PowerPoint slides to go through. I’m like, ‘Sure, I’ll answer this question… What are my greatest fears?’ I don’t really understand which part of me is talking at the moment. After a few minutes, I realized I had to go and talk to my wife about this, and I explained it to her. So that was a very emotional, up-and-down, left-to-right sideways kind of day, trying to absorb that. And it’s continued the whole year, trying to take everything in. You process the experience over and over.”
What do you tell people about the experience of going to space?
“It depends on the audience. This morning, I was talking to my daughter’s preschool, just about who wants to be an astronaut, and what it’s like to go to space. But when I’m talking to other people, it’s about trying to share with them the impact it had on me, and what I take away from the experience. It may sound a little repetitive to keep talking about the Overview Effect, but it really does have an impact.
“It’s that vantage point of looking back at Earth that makes you realize we are on a planet with finite resources. While we’re sitting here on Earth, we may feel like the world’s our oyster, and that we have so many things we could take advantage of. But you get far enough away, and you can see the barrier between the vacuum of space and that thin layer of breathable air.
“Beyond that, I feel as if we set out to accomplish an incredible mission in space using all civilians who were brought together from all backgrounds, to show that space is open for everyone. You do not have to be at the top of the class to enjoy the experience and be successful in space. At the same time, you have to do it with a purpose — saying that, yes, we are in space, but we have a huge duty to give back and do something great on Earth at the same time.”
You’ve been saying that you felt that obligation to give back from the very start, when you were named as a member of the crew. How has that proceeded for you?
“I still feel like I have this duty to earn that seat that was given to me, to earn that Overview Effect. That means being able to share the story and talk to people, and explain to them that space is open and we should be using it for good. We should be using space to help improve life on Earth, or off Earth.”
When you were selected, you were working for Lockheed Martin as an engineer specializing in fault detection and diagnostics, but now it sounds as if you’re making a change in your career.
“I’ll be working for DB Engineering. They’ve done a lot of work in the past with Microsoft, helping them build out their fault detection platforms to make their campus more energy-efficient. I’ve worked with them in the past, and they are doing cutting-edge work — sometimes bleeding-edge work — to help folks manage their assets in a way that is effective and efficient.
“They especially help large companies that are looking for ways to normalize and track everything together in a common place, to see how they can save money, how they can bring together all these different resources that might be put together by a dozen different vendors.”
I suppose there could be some space applications for those sorts of services, but I’m guessing the focus probably has more to do with production flows down here on Earth.
“It’s typically real estate-based and facility-based. Part of that is production flows. But it also affects health care. It affects data centers. It affects college campuses and quality of life for so many people. It’s a really cool opportunity to use data and engineering and analytics to have a profound impact on people’s lives — and in a way that can also help people get jobs, typically in an industry that’s starved for digital transformation.”
Do you think there’ll be a way to connect this with your space experience?
“What’s cool about all this is that when you take a step back, you realize that every company is a space company. They just may not realize it. I feel like I stole that line from someone else, but it’s true. Whether you are in remote sensing, or using data or maps from Google or any company, if you’re using resources that span the globe and help people stay connected, space is a part of that.”
Is there a continuing role that you’ll be playing with Inspiration4?
“We raised over $240 million for St. Jude, and the responsibilities that go with that are that all four of us are essentially ambassadors to continue to promote that mission. If we’re going to do something incredible in space, we should be doing something equally as incredible here on Earth.
“For Inspiration4, it was raising that incredible amount of money in an effort to eradicate childhood cancer. For the Polaris Program, their mission is to go global, and promote St. Jude’s initiative to raise the survival rates globally — to eliminate the idea that the best predictor of survival is the country you live in. It’s a really sad thing to say, but it’s the truth.”
What advice would you have for the Polaris Program’s crew members?
“They are all incredible people, and they’re going to do amazingly well. I would just say, remember to take moments to pause and just enjoy being in space.
“I know there’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of excitement, and there are many things that need to get accomplished. There’s a lot of science, there’s a lot of research, a lot of technology demonstrations to conduct. But it is so important to have the time to just get the human experience of being in space. It pays so many dividends. When you come back to tell that story, to have that experience and to share it with others — when you come back, that can’t be understated.”
Inspiration4 is the focus of “Countdown,” a four-part documentary streaming on Netflix.