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Cancer Survivor Hayley Arceneaux Will Be The Youngest American In Space

By Molly Farinholt··  4 min read
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When she was 10 years old, Hayley Arceneaux was a cancer patient at St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Today, the 29-year-old is a physician assistant at the hospital. Later this year, she will be orbiting the earth as both the youngest American and the first person with a prosthetic body part to go to space.

Earlier this year, 38-year-old billionaire Jared Isaacman announced that he had purchased a Dragon spacecraft from Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. Wanting the mission to be for more than the elite, Isaacman offered two of the four all-civilian seats on the SpaceX rocket to St. Jude. One is for the winner of a sweepstakes (the proceeds of which will go to the hospital). The other, the philanthropist maintained, would be for a St. Jude worker who shines as a beacon of hope. Hayley Arceneaux was the perfect pick. 

Hayley Arceneaux and St. Jude's Hospital

As a child undergoing chemotherapy for bone cancer, Hayley helped at St. Jude fundraisers. A native of Louisiana, she was also honored with a Young Hero Award by Louisiana Public Broadcasting. At the ceremony, she proudly proclaimed her desire to, one day, be a nurse at St. Jude. “I want to be a mentor to patients,” she said. “When they come in, I’ll say, ‘I had that when I was little, and I’m doing good’.” That's precisely what she now does. As a PA, she works with children who have been diagnosed with leukemia and lymphoma. Not only does she care for their physical wellbeing, but she also bolsters their spirits and gives them cause to smile and dream about a wonderful future. 

Hayley shared on Instagram about getting hired at St. Jude’s last April. She wrote, “All I’ve ever wanted is to work at St. Jude, and this is my ultimate life dream come true. I’ve truly never been happier or more excited about anything. I told myself over and over when I was going through treatment that God had a plan. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for His faithfulness and for my wild journey!”

Going to Space

Hayley has long possessed a spirit that seeks the stars. As a 9-year-old, her family went on a trip to the Houston NASA Space Center. “I got to see where the astronauts trained and of course wanted to be an astronaut after that — who doesn’t?” Hayley recalled. Her brother Hayden, who is two years younger, was also inspired and grew up to be an aerospace engineer.

Now, Hayley's spirit will be fulfilled in the most literal sense. She and Isaacman have visited SpaceX’s headquarters multiple times in preparation for the mission, named Inspiration4. The rocket will orbit Earth several times before landing off the coast of Florida. Hayley will be the crew's medical officer on the trip.

Speaking about the trip, Hayley said, “My battle with cancer really prepared me for space travel. It made me tough, and then also I think it really taught me to expect the unexpected and go along for the ride.”

Hayley also views this opportunity as a way to inspire her patients. “It’s going to mean so much to these kids to see a survivor in space,” she said. “The sky is not even the limit anymore.” She hopes her experience will help other cancer patients to “visualize their future.” 

She will also be a symbol of hope for those who have prosthetic limbs, as that once precluded anyone from entering space. Her artificial titanium leg bones would not be compliant with NASA’s rigid health standards for astronauts, but that’s not the case for this privately financed trip. “The sky is not the limit,” said Dr. Neel, the surgeon who installed Hayley’s prosthesis in her left leg. Though she may not be able to play tackle football, she can dash off into the stars. 

Preparing for the Trip of a Lifetime

Inspiration4 is projected to fly it's mission in the fourth quarter of 2021, but Hayley has already started preparing. She's been fitted for her space suit and seat. She's seen a launch from mission control and seen the Dragon spacecraft she'll be traveling in. As liftoff approaches, Hayley and the other crewmembers will undergo more rigorous training.

“We’re going to learn how the rocket and the capsule work, some of the mechanics behind it,” Hayley said. “We’re going to learn physiology in space. We’re going to be prepared for any situation that could arise.” Hayden has been giving his big sister some tips on what to expect in space. “She’s a very adventurous person and this is like the ultimate adventure,” he said, “so she’s going to have a blast.”

Closing Thoughts 

Though Hayley Arceneaux won’t now have time to fulfill her plan to visit all seven continents before her 30th birthday, the trip to space will certainly be a grand adventure. And it will be more than just a joy ride for the young woman; it will be an act that instills hope in many, many people. 

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