Real Winner of SpaceX Flight Comes Forward

Kyle Hippchen gave flight to friend because he exceeded weight limit
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 27, 2022 4:26 AM CST
Real Winner of SpaceX Flight Comes Forward
This photo provided by Kyle Hippchen shows him, right, with Chris Sembroski near launch complex 39A in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on April 21, 2021.   (Courtesy Kyle Hippchen via AP)

(Newser) – He told his family and a few friends. He dropped hints to a couple of colleagues. So hardly anyone knew that 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 first-of-its-kind sweepstakes, who gave his seat to his college roommate. Though Hippchen’s secret is finally out, that doesn’t make it any easier knowing he missed his chance to orbit Earth because he exceeded the weight limit. He still hasn’t watched the Netflix series on the three-day flight purchased by a tech entrepreneur for himself and three guests last September. "It hurts too much," he said. "I’m insanely disappointed. But it is what it is."

Hippchen, 43, a Florida-based captain for Delta's regional carrier Endeavor Air, recently shared his story with the AP during his first visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center since his lost rocket ride. He opened up about his out-of-the-blue, dream-come-true windfall, the letdown when he realized he topped SpaceX's weight restrictions of 250 pounds, and his offer to the one person he knew would treasure the flight as much as himself. His seat went to Chris Sembroski, 42, a data engineer in Everett, Washington. The pair roomed together starting in the late 1990s while attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. They’d pile into cars with other student space geeks and make the hourlong drive south for NASA’s shuttle launches.

Neither could resist when Shift4 Payments founder and CEO Jared Isaacman raffled off a seat on the flight he purchased from SpaceX’s Elon Musk. The beneficiary was St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Hippchen snapped up $600 worth of entries. Sembroski, about to start a new job at Lockheed Martin, shelled out $50. By early March, Hippchen started receiving vague emails seeking details about himself. That’s when he read the contest’s small print: The winner had to be under 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds. Hippchen was 5-foot-10 and 330 pounds. He told organizers he was pulling out, figuring he was only one of many finalists. In the flurry of emails and calls that followed, Hippchen was stunned to learn he’d won.

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 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,” Hippchen said. Isaacman, the spaceflight’s sponsor, allowed Hippchen to pick a stand-in. "Kyle’s willingness to gift his seat to Chris was an incredible act of generosity," Isaacman says. Before climbing into SpaceX’s Dragon capsule on Sept. 15, Sembroski followed tradition and used the phone atop the launch tower to make his one allotted call. He called Hippchen and thanked him one more time. "I’m forever grateful," Sembroski said.

(Read more SpaceX stories.)

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