Hayley Arceneaux has traveled to 25 states, 21 countries, and five continents, but her next big trip will top them all — literally.
Arceneaux, a south Louisiana native and graduate of Southeastern Louisiana University, will journey to the top of the world and beyond as part of the first-ever all-civilian mission to space later this year.
At 29 years old, she could become the youngest American to visit space.
Arceneaux will be part of “Inspiration4,” named after the upcoming four-member space mission that aims to raise awareness and funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where Arceneaux was cured of childhood cancer in the early 2000s. She could become the first person with a prosthesis in space as well as the first cancer survivor.
Arceneaux currently works at St. Jude as a physician assistant.
Set for the fourth quarter of this year, Arceneaux and two others will board SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft alongside 38-year-old entrepreneur billionaire Jared Isaacman, the founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, a Pennsylvania-based payment processing company.
When announcing his plans earlier this month, Isaacman told CNN he wanted the mission to mark a “historic moment to inspire humanity while helping to tackle childhood cancer.” He has already pledged to donate $100 million to the hospital, NBC reported, as part of a push to raise $200 million more dollars for the organization’s research.
People can also donate to St. Jude through the inspiration4.com/donate portal, with one donor having a chance to win a seat aboard the space flight. The St. Jude fundraiser was announced in a television commercial broadcast during this year’s Super Bowl.
Isaacman and the rest of the Inspiration4 crew will receive commercial astronaut training by SpaceX on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft, orbital mechanics, operating in microgravity, zero gravity, and other forms of stress testing, according to a statement from SpaceX.
They will also go through emergency preparedness training, spacesuit and spacecraft ingress and egress exercises, as well as partial and full mission simulations.
During the multi-day mission, the Dragon capsule will circle Earth once every 90 minutes along a customized flight path, according to SpaceX. At the end of the expedition, the spacecraft will re-enter the planet’s atmosphere and splash down near the coast of Florida.
The other two members of the crew will be named in the coming weeks. One seat will be offered to a member of the public as part of the charity drive, while another will go to an entrepreneur “who utilizes the new Shift4Shop eCommerce platform,” Isaacman’s company said in a statement.
Arceneaux was chosen as the ambassador for St. Jude, which has cured tens of thousands of children from cancer since it opened in 1962 — herself included.
“Being the St. Jude ambassador is such an incredible honor,” Arceneaux said in a recent interview with The News. “I’m just so excited about getting to share my love for St. Jude with the world.”
Advocating for St. Jude is nothing new for Arceneaux, who at 10 years old was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer that doctors discovered in her left leg. Her diagnosis came one week after she earned a black belt in Taekwondo.
Arceneaux and her family then went to the St. Jude campus in Memphis, where she’d soon endure “a very difficult surgery” in which doctors successfully removed the tumor and installed an artificial femur and knee. That led to “a year of very intense chemotherapy,” but Arceneaux described it as “an important time” that “made me who I am.”
Arceneaux described the environment at St. Jude as “positive” and “hopeful,” saying the staff made every patient feel like they were the favorite.
She fondly recalled the way the staff treated her and the other patients like family, bringing up the times they would play pranks or act as matchmakers. Her and another patient also hosted what was called “The Hayley and Hannah Show” in which they’d dance and perform for doctors and nurses.
Arceneaux even became an unofficial part of the staff, acting as an assistant receptionist in the blood donor room and interacting with the donors.
“She’d always say, ‘Thank you for donating. If I didn’t get blood platelets, I would shrivel up,” her mother, Colleen, said with a laugh when speaking with Louisiana Public Broadcasting in 2003. “She would always just cheer them along.”
When Arceneaux was a fifth-grader at Bains Elementary in St. Francisville, she spoke at the 2003 Louisiana Young Heroes Award Ceremony, where she was honored for “fighting the battle, winning the battle, and continuing to serve the cause.”
During the ceremony, others across the state learned of her fight against cancer and some of her fundraising efforts for St. Jude, which included a math-a-thon at her school that raised $7,700.
They also learned what Arceneaux, just 11 at the time, had already envisioned for her future.
“When I grow up, I want to be a nurse at St. Jude and I want to be a mentor to patients,” a young Arceneaux said during the ceremony. “When they come, I’ll say, ‘I had that when I was little, and I’m doing good.’”
Arceneaux spent the next 17 years preparing for her dream job at St. Jude. She spent a summer in college working as an ALSAC intern and another summer as a student researcher with the St. Jude Pediatric Oncology Education program. She also volunteered at Camp Horizon, a pediatric oncology camp, for a week every summer.
At Southeastern, Arceneaux majored in Spanish in order to work with the large population of Spanish-speaking patients at St. Jude, even spending a summer and semester in Spain to gain fluency. She later studied at LSU Health in Shreveport.
In November of 2016, she began working in the emergency department at Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge, where she became the “go-to provider” for the Spanish-speaking patients that came through.
Working in the frontline of the hospital, Arceneaux said she learned how to balance a large patient load, work quickly in fast-paced and high-stressed situations, and communicate between different specialties and departments of the hospital.
And all the while, she kept applying at St. Jude.
Arceneaux’s life forever changed in April of 2020, when she received the news she had wanted to hear for 18 years — she was being offered a job at St. Jude. With her childhood dream now a reality, she immediately took to social media to share the news, even uploading a photo during her time as a patient.
“I’ve truly never been happier or more excited about anything,” she wrote in the Facebook post, which was liked by more than 1,000 followers. “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! Now, on to Memphis!!!!”
Since starting at St. Jude, Arceneaux has worked leukemia and lymphoma patients, sharing her personal story with them and their families as they go through what can be an “overwhelming and scary” situation.
When she was a patient, Arceneaux said she and her parents felt a sense of relief whenever they saw a survivor stroll through the hospital. Now, her patients and their families see one every time she enters the room.
“I think it’s really important to share that… because it’s so overwhelming and so scary, especially in the beginning,” she said. “Just to be able to kind of visualize the future is really important.”
“I also tell the kids I’ll answer any questions they have and I’ll be honest with them and I tell them that it’s going to shape their lives but it’s going to make them who they are and it’s going to make them tough and change their life in a good way.”
Roughly nine months after starting at St. Jude, Arceneaux got even more life-changing news. It came on Jan. 5, when she received a Zoom invitation from the hospital saying “they had an opportunity for me.” She accepted the Zoom invite and logged in.
In the weeks after, she’d refer to it as a day she will “never forget.”
“When I got on the call, they started talking about the background of this mission to space and then they asked me if I wanted to have a seat on board,” she recalled. “Immediately, I said, ‘Yes, yes.’”
Arceneaux met Isaacman on a Zoom call a few days after accepting the mission. He showed her a powerpoint presentation detailing his idea for the trip “and how he wanted to use it for good to raise money for St. Jude and also to inspire people.”
She had to keep the news under wraps for weeks, telling only a few family members and close friends. She told her mother, who said she couldn’t pass up the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” She then told her brother and sister-in-law, two aerospace engineers who Arceneaux said “reassured me how safe space travel is.” A few friends said they plan to make T-shirts for the launch.
Arceneaux also relayed the news to one of her former nurses from her time as a St. Jude patient. The two have stayed in touch over the years, and upon hearing the news, the former nurse broke into tears.
“She was so happy for me,” Arceneaux said. “She was asking if I was going to be safe and offering to listen to my heart and lungs before I go into space. I was like, ‘I think I’m going to have a lot of that done.’”
Isaacman announced the trip earlier this month but stayed quiet regarding the identity of the St. Jude ambassador, relaying only to reporters that it was a woman and frontline healthcare worker who’s “committed to helping kids beat cancer.”
The secret finally came out on Monday, allowing Arceneaux to reveal to the world that she’d soon be flying out of it.
“The secret is finally out! Later this year I will be part of the first all-civilian mission to space!” she wrote. “I am so grateful for this incredible, once in a lifetime opportunity and honor, and I cannot WAIT to show the world what cancer survivors can do!”
Since being selected for the mission, Arceneaux’s schedule has been loaded with media requests and trips to SpaceX’s headquarters in California. She’s visited the site three times in the last few weeks and has squeezed in interviews with national outlets such as The New York Times, NBC, People Magazine, and Axios as well as local outlets in Louisiana and Tennessee. On Monday, she is scheduled to appear on “The Today Show.”
In her spare time, Arceneaux has consumed herself with documentaries, televisions, and movies regarding space travel and “any bit of space I can get my hands on.”
“Every time I watch any of this, it makes me so much more excited,” she said.
Training for the trip will begin after the other two passengers are named, said Arceneaux, who has already undergone medical evaluations and tests. Though she hasn’t been told exactly what the training will entail, she expressed confidence in what SpaceX has planned. She also said Isaacman has some ideas for team-bonding experiences.
Despite going where only a few hundred people in history have gone, Arceneaux said she hasn’t yet felt afraid of the upcoming trip to space, adding that it might hit her “as I’m walking to the spacecraft.”
An avid traveler who was hoping to visit every continent before the age of 30, Arceneaux said she’s always looking for the next adventure, unafraid of where they’ll lead after dealing with an even frightening scenario growing up.
“I do think that my experience with childhood cancer has prepared me for this,” she said. “I’d like to think it made me tough and to expect the unexpected and to go with it.”
Arceneaux hopes to include St. Jude patients during the trip in space, “If that means FaceTiming with them or recording some videos for them.” She has first-hand experience with what they’re going through — and first-hand experience of what they can overcome.
“It will be so cool for them to not only talk with someone in space, but it’s going to mean a lot for them to see a survivor in space and just knowing that that’s something they can do one day, too,” she said.
To donate to St. Jude, click here.