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Meet the man who won a trip to space and gifted it to a friend

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Meet the man who won a trip to space and gifted it to a friend

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CAPE CANAVERAL, FL. — He told his family and some friends about it. He left clues for a few colleagues. So hardly anyone knew the airline pilot could have — should have — been on board when SpaceX launched its first tourists into orbit last year.

Meet Kyle Hippchen, the real winner of a one-of-a-kind contest, who gave his college roommate his place.

Although Hippchen’s secret is finally out, it doesn’t make it any easier knowing that he missed his chance to orbit Earth because he exceeded the weight limit. He still hasn’t watched the Netflix series about the three-day flight bought by a tech entrepreneur for himself and three guests last September.

“It hurts too much,” he said. “I’m incredibly disappointed. But that’s the way it is.”

Hippchen, 43, a Florida-based captain for Delta’s regional carrier Endeavor Air, recently shared his story with The Associated Press during his first visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center since his lost rocket.

He opened up about his unexpected windfall, a dream come true, the disappointment when he realized he exceeded SpaceX weight restrictions by 250 pounds (113 kilograms) and his offer to the only person he knew would cherish the flight as much as himself. Four months later, he thinks probably less than 50 people know he’s the real winner.

“It was their show, and I didn’t want to distract too much from what they were doing,” said Hippchen, who watched the launch from a VIP balcony.

His seat went to Chris Sembroski, 42, a data engineer in Everett, Washington. The couple shared a room beginning in the late 1990s while attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. They piled into cars with other space geek students and made the hour-long drive south for NASA shuttle launches. They also belonged to a space advocacy group, traveling to Washington to promote commercial space travel.

Despite living on opposite coasts, Hippchen and Sembroski continued to exchange space information and champion the cause. Neither could resist when Shift4 Payments founder and CEO Jared Isaacman raffled off a seat on the flight he bought from SpaceX’s Elon Musk. The recipient was St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Hippchen raised US$600 in entries. Sembroski, about to start a new job at Lockheed Martin, paid $50. With 72,000 entries in last February’s draw, neither thought they would win and didn’t bother to tell the other.

In early March, Hippchen began receiving vague emails asking for details about himself. That’s when he read the contest’s fine print: The winner had to be under 6-foot-6 and weigh 250 pounds.

Hippchen was 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 330 pounds.

He told organizers he was stepping down, thinking he was just one of many finalists. In the wave of emails and calls that followed, Hippchen was stunned to learn that he had won.

With a launch scheduled for September, the schedule was tight. Still new to flying people, SpaceX was to start measuring its first private passengers for their custom flight suits and capsule seats. As an aerospace engineer and pilot, Hippchen knew the weight limit was a safety issue involving the seats and could not be exceeded.

“I was trying to figure out how I could lose 80 pounds in six months, which, I mean, it’s possible, but it’s not the healthiest thing in the world to do,” Hippchen said.

Isaacman, the spaceflight sponsor, allowed Hippchen to choose a replacement.

“Kyle’s willingness to offer his seat to Chris was an incredible act of generosity,” he said in an email this week.

Isaacman introduced his passengers at the end of March: a medical assistant from St. Jude who beat cancer there as a child; a community college teacher who was the winning business customer of Shift4 Payments; and Sembroski.

Hippchen joined them in April to watch SpaceX launch astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, the company’s last crewed flight before theirs.

In gratitude, Sembroski offered to take personal items into space for Hippchen. He collected his high school and college rings, his airline captain’s epaulets, a World War I great-uncle’s Purple Heart, and the odds and ends of his best friends from high school, warning: ” Don’t ask for any details.”

On launch day, September 15, word had spread. As friends and families gathered for takeoff, Hippchen said the conversation went like this: “My name is Kyle. Are you the Kyle? Yeah, I’m the Kyle.”

Before boarding SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, Sembroski followed tradition and used the phone atop the launch tower to make his only call. He called Hippchen and thanked him again.

“I’m forever grateful,” Sembroski said.

And although Hippchen couldn’t see Earth from orbit, he was able to experience about 10 minutes of weightlessness. During Sembroski’s flight, he joined friends and family of the crew in a special weightless aircraft.

“It was awesome.”

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.



Meet the man who won a trip to space and gifted it to a friend

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