Class of 2014 alumna Hayley Arceneaux has been living her dream to help childhood cancer patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. But an opportunity to visit space as part of Inspiration4, the first all-civilian mission to orbit Earth, has brought her goals and accomplishments to an even more cosmic level.
On September 15, 2021, the late afternoon Cape Canaveral air was typically blustery and humid as Hayley Arceneaux looked out to the swelling crowd assembled on the grounds of Kennedy Space Center. To those gathered, the hours of heat and anxious waiting were a trivial detail that faded further and further into translucency as time slowly ticked by. They were there to witness an important moment in history, one they could proudly tell stories about for the rest of their lives: the launch of humankind’s first all-civilian spaceflight to orbit Earth, Inspiration4. It would also be the farthest flight for human spaceflight since the Hubble missions.
Hayley, at only 29 years old, was about to play a significant role in bringing this monumental step in space travel to fruition. At 8:02 p.m. that evening, she would do something many people don’t even dare to dream of. She would launch into the cosmos, orbiting the planet for nearly three full days.
But if taking a place in history as a member of the first all-civilian space crew wasn’t enough, Hayley would personally soon lay claim to two more titles: the youngest American and the first person with a prosthesis to ever visit space.
And even more than that, above and beyond being part of this next step in human spaceflight, she was doing it to raise money for a cause she had believed in with all her heart since she was a child, one that could help save the lives of little ones who were dreaming of one day setting off on their own amazing paths. She was doing it to help fund cancer research and treatment for St. Jude. As a childhood cancer survivor herself who had dedicated her career to helping others make it through what she had, she was also inspiring her patients and all youngsters to always keep reaching for the stars.
Hayley knew she would soon need to put on her full spacesuit and fulfill this destiny. The initially incomprehensible event this small-town girl from St. Francisville, La., had arduously and excitedly been training for during the past several months would soon begin.
But just before she went in to start her final preparations, as she glanced out at the rustling crowd of supporters in the still bright late-afternoon Florida sun, something caught her eye. And then something else. Again, and again.
They were uniform speckles of powder blue. Looking closer, they were t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Hayley’s Ground Krewe.” As Hayley recognized the faces above them, she was swept up in even more warmth and joy. They were all her best friends, the ones who had been there for her since they first met while students together at Southeastern. They had come a long way together, and now they were there to support her as she made history. From Southeastern to space, and beyond.
Taking this Lion Pride with her, a short time later Hayley entered the capsule of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft Resilience. She took her seat in the monochrome interior’s far left and prepared for countdown—and a history-making, life-changing experience she would never forget.
Hayley’s journey to space truly began nearly two decades earlier. At age 10, she began to feel an ache in her knee. When the pain kept coming back, she underwent a series of tests that revealed a devastating diagnosis: a type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital soon became home away from home for Hayley and her family. It was there she received limb-saving surgery, which included implantation of a prosthesis in her leg and chemotherapy. The treatment she underwent ultimately not only saved her life, it sparked in her a dream to one day work for St. Jude and help other children fighting cancer.
Years later when it came time to choose a college to help her get there, Hayley put Southeastern at the top of her list—following in the footsteps of her grandmother who was also an alumna.
“I was initially impressed by Southeastern when a representative came to speak at my high school, and I learned about the different colleges and scholarships. And then when I visited campus, I thought it was just beautiful,” said Hayley. “I also liked the size of the classes and being able to get to know my professors”.
“I loved it even more than I thought I was going to. Ever since my first few days at Southeastern,” she continued. “I rushed right before I started school, and my first day of school I already had new friends. Those were some of the best years of my life. I absolutely loved Southeastern, and I made all the best friends there that are still my best friends.” These are the same friends that would be there to cheer Hayley on at Kennedy Space Center as she prepared to make history.
“We got close so fast and have remained life-long friends,” Haley remembered fondly. “From living together in a sorority house to living off-campus when they were right next door and I could just walk over in my slippers. We would eat all of our meals together in the Union and different places, and we would go to the football games together. I loved being in my sorority—it was just such a great way to meet people and to stay busy, which I love doing, and to really get to enjoy everything that Southeastern has to offer.”
Hayley lived life to the fullest while a Southeastern student, becoming actively involved in many on-campus and community organizations including Alpha Sigma Tau, Up Till Dawn, Order of Omega, and Spanish Club.
“Southeastern definitely gave me interpersonal skills. Especially through my sorority, I met so many different people and had leadership roles,” she said.
But she never let go of her core focus to become a physician assistant (PA) and work for St. Jude. So while she minored in biology and successfully completed all the prerequisite coursework for PA school, in an interesting turn Hayley decided to major in Spanish after a unique internship experience.
“I met some Spanish-speaking patients when I interned at St. Jude the summer after my freshman year, and they had a really big impact on me. I saw the challenges that they navigate in cancer treatment in a second language, and I knew I wanted to go back and work with these kids and just help them feel more comfortable by treating them in their native language,” she explained.
“Through studying Spanish the whole world has been opened up to me. I’ve gotten to experience new things I never would have before and see places that I probably wouldn’t have explored if I hadn’t studied Spanish. And, I get to work with Spanish-speaking patients now, which has been my dream.”
Hayley credits her time at Southeastern for preparing her well for PA school and beyond. Not only was she ready academically, but she was able to learn life skills, think in new ways, and find new interests.
As a Spanish major she participated in two study abroad programs through Southeastern, a summer one as part of a group and one on her own for a full semester. She said of this experience, “It really taught me to go out of my comfort zone, which I think was a great skill I learned then that has served me later in life. And also that’s when I really fell in love with international travel and seeing the world.”
“I loved my time at Southeastern. It definitely made me who I am,” she added.
After graduating from Southeastern then PA school, Hayley eventually landed her dream job at St. Jude and moved to Memphis, Tenn.
“I love getting to work with these kids and their families, especially when they’re newly diagnosed,” Hayley said of her work. “They are so overwhelmed, and just getting to sit with them, answer their questions, give them knowledge, and tell them ‘I know you’re overwhelmed; I’ve been there too.’ Just getting to be on the team that helps cure these kids from their cancer is the most rewarding thing that I could ever be part of.”
But destiny still had even more in store for Hayley. Her skills and knowledge, luminous personality, and caring dedication to her patients and her work caught the attention of St. Jude administration for an exciting, one-of-a-kind task.
In February of 2021 Jared Isaacman, a then 38-year-old tech billionaire who had founded private air force provider Draken International and payment processor Shift4 Payments, announced he would be funding the first private human spaceflight comprised only of civilians. The aim was to raise life-saving funds for St. Jude. He would serve as commander, alongside three others still to be chosen. Their four seats were dedicated to representing the pillars of leadership, hope, generosity, and prosperity: Inspiration4.
Jared, who filled the slot of leadership, approached St. Jude to identify a member of their staff who represents hope and could fulfill the role of mission chief medical officer. They knew Hayley would be the perfect fit.
Hayley recalled how the offer to visit space hit her completely out of the blue. “I was absolutely shocked when I was asked to go to space. St. Jude had told me in an email they wanted to talk to me about something. They said it was a unique opportunity. And so I join a conference call with St. Jude, and they start telling me about this all civilian mission to space. The first all civilian mission. And how it was going to be used as a fundraiser for St. Jude.
“I’m thinking, ok, what do I have to do with this? And then I was absolutely shocked when they said we want to send you to space. I actually laughed, and I said ‘what, are you serious?’ And then I said ‘yes.’ But then I thought for a second and said, ‘Let me check with my mom. But my answer is yes.’ I got done, and my hands were shaking.”
When she did run it by her mom and the rest of her family, they were not only elated for her, they also helped calm some of her nerves. “My family was so supportive. My brother and his wife are both aerospace engineers. And so they definitely made me feel more comfortable about the safety of space travel.”
Despite this reassurance, it was still a huge surprise to process. “I never imagined it would be possible for me to go to space. And until this mission, it wouldn’t have been. Because I have an internal prosthesis in my leg I would not have been qualified to be a NASA astronaut, so I had never really considered it. All I ever wanted to do was work at St. Jude.”
The remaining two members of the crew were soon chosen, with Chris Sembroski representing generosity and Dr. Sian Proctor, who became the first black female spacecraft pilot through this mission, representing prosperity. The next few months were a whirlwind as they embarked on raising awareness for the fundraising purpose and participating in astronaut training.
“We did water survival training, hiked a mountain together, did fighter pilot training so that we became very accustomed to G-forces, and also we became accustomed to G-forces through centrifuge training. We did do a zero-gravity flight, and it was a good introduction, but space zero gravity felt very different to me, and then it was just constant in space. The majority of what we did was studying and spending time in the simulator for our Dragon spacecraft.”
The world became fascinated with this mission, following the crew’s stories and preparations. Media attention became a norm for Hayley, who was even featured on the cover of Time magazine and in the Netflix documentary Countdown: Inspiration 4, Mission to Space. But throughout the rocketing attention, she stayed grounded in who she was and what she was setting out to accomplish.
The moment she and her Inspiration4 colleagues had anxiously awaited finally came on September 15. As people across the globe watched, a flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched Inspiration4 out of Earth’s atmosphere.
The group soon reached orbit, and Hayley’s amazement continued to grow. “We had the most incredible views of Earth. We had this large dome window, called a cupola, which was the largest window ever flown in space. From it we would see an entire 360° view of the planet, with the blackness of space around it and stars and the moon; it was gorgeous. I could see lightning from space and even a wildfire, which was really crazy to see.”
“Seeing the Earth from space changes a person,” she added. “Getting that perspective of our planet. When I saw the Earth, I was just overwhelmed by how beautiful it was. And I also felt the most intense feeling of gratitude that I’ve ever felt. Gratitude for being alive, for getting to experience something that so few people have gotten to experience. And that feeling of gratitude will stay with me forever.”
But Hayley was not only impacted personally; she was able to be part of creating an impact on the world and on the children she was dedicated to serving. “We were not there to just be tourists,” Hayley said. “We did several types of biomedical research. The main thing we were assessing was the human body and microgravity, and how short-duration space missions affect the human body. We also called the St. Jude patients from space, which was the highlight of the mission for me—getting to talk to my patients from space and telling them that they can do this too.”
From eating cold wet pizza with jalapenos and catching some sleep in a sleeping bag hovering over her seat with a seatbelt around it so she wouldn’t float off in the night, to conducting monumental research and talking to those back on Earth, Hayley’s time in orbit soon flew by. On September 18, 2021, at 7:06 p.m. EDT, the Dragon capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Canaveral. Haley was the first to exit the spacecraft when SpaceX’s recovery ship Go Searcher picked them up about 40 minutes later.
While the mission was completed, the impact it had on Hayley would stay with her forever. “Through the past year, I’ve been put in some very stressful situations,” she said. “And it showed me that I’m stronger than I think I am. And it gave me skills and taught me how to manage difficult situations.”
The end of Inspiration4 was also not the end of Hayley’s role with SpaceX. In December she accepted a position as part of their medical team—helping medically train and support commercial astronauts.
Hayley has also taken up public speaking, and will soon become a published author. Her book Wild Ride, a memoir that recounts her time as a healthy kid to her cancer diagnosis and treatment, days at Southeastern, and her experiences with Inspiration4, drops September 6 and is now available for preorder.
Even in the midst of all of her work and accomplishments, Hayley continues to pursue new endeavors to become as well-rounded as possible. “I love international travel—that is my biggest hobby,” she said. “I really love enjoying a local restaurant scene. And I’m a wanna-be mixologist. I’m trying to learn how to make cocktails. And then of course seeing my friends.”
But even though she continues to play a role in the future of space exploration and pursue new dreams, Hayley is not letting go of her original dream of helping children at St. Jude, for which she helped raise nearly $242 million as part of Inspiration4. Today she continues to serve as a PA at the place that helped save her own life, uplifting those she works with in big ways, and she wouldn’t trade it in for anything.
“What has been most inspiring to me has been the kids I work with who have cancer telling me that they now want to be an astronaut. I really wanted to go on this mission to show them what life after cancer can look like. And it can be full, and it can be full of accomplished dreams. And no matter what they want to do, if they want to be an astronaut and go to the moon or whatever else they want to do in their life, I just want to show them it’s possible. So when I have a patient tell me they want to be an astronaut now, it just fills my heart.”
There have been countless experiences that have helped Hayley get to it where she is today, living her dream and accomplishing things most could only imagine, inspiring others. But Southeastern still always remains close to her heart.
“I have so much gratitude to Southeastern for empowering me and for making me feel like I was capable of so much. I’m the first Lion to go to space, but hopefully not the last.”
By Sheri Gibson