Inspiration4 crew describes “incredible perspective” from space

The Inspiration4 crew downlinks a live update from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft. Credit: SpaceX

On their final full day in space Friday, the all-civilian Inspiration4 crew circling Earth inside a SpaceX Dragon capsule chatted with Tom Cruise, rang the closing bell on the New York Stock Exchange, and downlinked a live video update showing views outside their cupola dome window.

The crew members demonstrated acrobatic spins in the microgravity environment aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft, described scientific experiments that are part of the mission, and showed off artistic efforts, including sketches and a brief musical performance.

Jared Isaacman, the billionaire businessman and civilian pilot who paid for the first all-private crew flight to orbit, thanked followers for supporting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the non-profit institution that is the focus of a fundraising campaign attached to the Inspiration4 mission.

“A big part of our mission here at Inspiration4 is to inspire what can be done here in space because there’s an awful lot of it,” Isaacman, 38, said in a video downlink from space at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) Friday. “We’ve got to get out and explore it, but also we have our responsibilities that we need to take care of back on Earth, and top on our list right now is conquering childhood cancer. That’s why we’re supporting St. Jude.”

The mission has a goal of raising $200 million for St. Jude, including $100 million personally donated by Isaacman.

“We know how fortunate we are to be up here,” Isaacman said. “We’re giving all of our time right now to science research and some ukulele playing, and trying to raise some good awareness for an important cause for us back on Earth.”

The Inspiration4 crew participated in a question and answer session with St. Jude patients Thursday, the day after their launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The video update Friday was the first live public downlink from the crew. Space-to-ground communications are broadcast publicly throughout NASA flights to and from the International Space Station, keeping with the government agency’s charter to be open.

But radio transmissions between the Inspiration4 crew and SpaceX mission control have not been available to the public, limiting real-time insight into the crew’s activities in orbit.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft is in near-constant communication with SpaceX mission control through voice and data links provided by NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite network. The Crew Dragon can only downlink live video during passes over ground stations.

Ground teams will retrieve high-resolution still photos and high-definition video recordings, including imagery from a GoPro 360-degree camera, after the Inspiration4 crew returns to Earth Saturday evening.

During their 10-minute video update Friday, the Inspiration4 crew appeared healthy and in good spirits as they approached the 48-hour mark of their mission.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft is fully automated, with ground teams at SpaceX’s headquarters California able to send up commands or change settings on the capsule. Isaacman’s crew is trained to live and work aboard the spaceship, or intervene in the event of an emergency.

On Saturday, the crew will put on their custom-made SpaceX pressure suits and prepare for re-entry back into the atmosphere.

The Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft fired thrusters two times Friday evening to lower its orbit from as high as 366 miles (590 kilometers) — higher than anyone has flown since a space shuttle flight to the Hubble Space Telescope two decades ago — to around 226 miles (365 kilometers), according to SpaceX.

The altitude change sets up for a deorbit burn at 6:16 p.m. EDT (2216 GMT) Saturday. The braking maneuver will allow the Crew Dragon’s orbit to fall back into the atmosphere, lining up the capsule for a parachute assisted splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral at 7:06 p.m. EDT (2306 GMT).

SpaceX’s recovery team will be on standby to hoist the capsule from the ocean. Personnel on the recovery ship will then assist the crew members out of the spacecraft, and the crew will fly back to Kennedy Space Center by helicopter.

A glimpse of life in space with the Inspiration4 crew 

“We’re cruising right now at 580 kilometers above Earth, going about 7.6 kilometers per second, so we’re really booking,” Isaacman said during Friday’s live event.

The space fliers opened the spacecraft’s forward hatch leading to a dome window SpaceX built for the Inspiration4 mission. The three-layer plexiglass viewing dome provides panoramic views of Earth and space, replacing the docking port used for Dragon missions to the International Space Station.

“Every time we go into darkness we get his amazing view,” said Sian Proctor, 51, a geology professor and artist who won a seat on the Inpsiration4 mission. “Oh, that looks like the aurora! Oh wow!”

Proctor later showed a sketch she made in orbit using metallic markers, and Chris Sembroski, a data engineer from Seattle who won his seat in a lottery, played a custom ukulele built for the mission.

“Because we’re trying to open the frontier to more people and open up space to more humans, we’re going to be bringing more of our humanities with us, along with art and music,” Sembroski said.

Hayley Arceneaux, the crew medical officer and, at 29, the youngest American to fly in orbit, retrieved a plush golden retriever toy selected as the mission’s “zero-g indicator.” It’s a spaceflight tradition for a crew to select an object of personal or symbolic importance as a microgravity indicator to start floating once a spacecraft reaches orbit.

The toy represents therapy dogs for St. Jude patients. Similar plush toys are for sale, with money going to the non-profit research hospital.

Arceneaux is former St. Jude patient and a survivor of childhood bone cancer. She is now a physician assistant at the hospital, and is helping oversee human biology experiments on the Inspiration4 mission.

“It’s been really interesting to see how fluid shifts with this microgravity environment, and that’s something that scientists are looking at, so we are happy to contribute with that,” she said. “We’ve also been taking several swabs of different parts of our bodies to evaluate the microbiome, and how that changes in these three days in space.”

The crew members are also giving blood samples and undergoing cognitive tests, allowing scientists to search for any changes during the flight. The spacecraft also carries a portable ultrasound machine.

Earlier in the day Friday, the Inspiration4 crew spoke with Tom Cruise and remotely ang the closing bell on the New York Stock Exchange. But crew has spent much of their time savoring the views and sensations of spaceflight.

“We have been spending so much time in this cupola,” Arceneaux said. “This is the largest window ever flown in space. We can put our head in and fit multiple crew members in, and see the entire perimeter of the Earth, which is such an incredible perspective.

“And the views, I have to say, are out of this world.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.