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Childhood cancer survivor revealed as crew member for all-civilian mission to space

St. Jude physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux, 29, is the second member of an all-civilian SpaceX mission to space later this year.
/ Source: TODAY

Hayley Arceneaux thought her childhood dream of being an astronaut was over when she had part of her femur removed when she was treated for bone cancer at 10 years old.

Nineteen years later, the physician assistant in the oncology unit at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is set to realize her dream of traveling to outer space despite having no experience as an astronaut.

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Arceneaux, 29, revealed exclusively on TODAY Monday that she will be part of the first all-civilian mission to space aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft that will launch before the end of this year. It will be a multi-day journey in which they are orbiting Earth and conducting experiments.

"Honestly, I'm not nervous at all," she told Tom Costello. "And I think that my cancer journey prepared me for this."

The Inspiration4 mission will be led by Jared Isaacman, the 38-year-old billionaire founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, a Pennsylvania-based payment processing company. Isaacman, who is a civilian pilot, is paying SpaceX founder Elon Musk for the opportunity to send him and three other civilians into orbit.

Hayley Arceneaux has gone from a childhood cancer survivor to becoming part of the first all-civilian mission to space. TODAY

The mission is doubling as a $200 million fundraising effort for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, where Arceneaux was treated for cancer as a child. Doctors had to remove part of her femur during treatment.

Today, she has since fulfilled her goal of returning to St. Jude as a member of the staff to help other children in need. She also will make history as the youngest American to ever travel to space and the first with a prosthesis.

"I really hope to show them that the sky's not even the limit," Arceneaux said about the children at St. Jude. "That they can do anything. I never thought I'd be able to go to space, and really until this mission, you had to be physically perfect.

"And this mission is changing things and getting to be a cancer survivor in space is such an incredible honor, and I can't wait to talk to my patients about this and just to show them that they can't limit themselves."

Anyone who donates any amount to the St. Jude fundraising effort can be considered for the third astronaut seat in what the hospital calls its biggest fundraiser in history. Isaacman told Costello they are already halfway toward their fundraising goal.

Arceneaux, right, with Jared Isaacman, who will be the mission's commander. TODAY

"That ensures that no family will ever receive a bill from St. Jude, not for the cost of treatment, travel, housing or food, because all we want mom and dad to worry about is helping their child live," St. Jude fundraising and awareness CEO Rick Shadyac said on TODAY.

Arceneaux is Isaacman's first selection for the crew.

"I think she's going to send a message to the world that you can face really really difficult times, even as a child, and still grow up and fulfill your dreams," Isaacman said on TODAY.

"I absolutely think that (having childhood cancer) prepared me for going to space," she said. "It really taught me how to expect the unexpected and to go with it, and keep a positive attitude. In a weird way, you're right that it did prepare me for this and I feel ready."

None of the crew members on the mission will have experience as astronauts, which has been a little nerve-wracking for Arceneaux's mother.

"She was kind of already into it, and I was asking, 'Well, how many astronauts are going along with these four,' and that's when she said none," Colleen Arceneaux said on TODAY. "And I was a little taken aback by that."

The fourth seat on the mission will go to someone with an entrepreneurial vision to make a difference, and Isaacman has already been swamped with video applications. The contest closes on Feb. 28.