Four civilian space travelers back on Earth after landmark flight

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience spaceship descends to the Atlantic Ocean Saturday to end the Inspiration4 mission. Credit: Inspiration4 / SpaceX

Four civilian space travelers rode a SpaceX capsule through a blazing re-entry back into Earth’s atmosphere Saturday evening and safely splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral, completing a historic 71 hours in space as the first privately-funded, non-government crew to fly in orbit.

The four-person Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft descended under four main parachutes to an on-target splashdown at 7:06 p.m. EDT (2306 GMT) Saturday about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northeast of Kennedy Space Center, where the private Inspiration4 mission launched Wednesday.

“Inspiration4, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to planet Earth,” radioed Kris Young, SpaceX’s space operations director, moments after splashdown. “Your mission has shown the world that space is for all of us, and that everyday people can make extraordinary impacts in the world around them.

“Thank you for sharing your leadership, hope, generosity and prosperity,” Young said, referring to the mission’s four principles, or “pillars,” attached to each Inspiration4 crew member.

Jared Isaacman, the billionaire businessman and civilian pilot who paid SpaceX for the mission, replied that the mission was a “heck of a ride … We’re just getting started!”

After a final braking burn to drop out of orbit, the Crew Dragon streaked through the atmosphere over Florida, flying southwest-to-northeast toward the splashdown zone off the east coast. Faint sonic booms were heard at Kennedy Space Center after the capsule soared overhead.

Live views broadcast by SpaceX from the Atlantic Ocean showed the spaceship’s return to Earth. Recovery teams quickly swarmed the capsule to verify there were no toxic leaks, then SpaceX’s “Go Searcher” vessel raised the spacecraft from the ocean.

Once personnel positioned the capsule on the deck of the recovery ship, SpaceX teams assisted each of the four Inspiration4 crew members out of the spacecraft. All four appeared ecstatic and healthy after their three days in low Earth orbit.

After medical checks and a chance to take a shower on the recovery ship, the Inspiration4 crew back to Kennedy Space Center on a helicopter for a reunion with their families.

The successful mission was the first U.S. human spaceflight to orbit Earth without major participation from NASA. Advocates for commercial spaceflight said Inspiration4 opens a door for “everyday people” launch into space, where fewer than 600 people have flown since the dawn of the Space Age.

The price of a trip to space is still out of reach for most people. But SpaceX is striving to make space missions more “airline-like” with lower prices and less risk, according to Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director of human spaceflight programs.

NASA’s inspector general says a seat on a Crew Dragon spacecraft for a six-month expedition to the International Space Station costs the agency more than $50 million.

Isaacman paid SpaceX less than that, according to officials familiar with the arrangement, but SpaceX and Isaacman have not disclosed the cost of the Inspiration4 mission.

“We can’t talk about the price of the mission,” Reed said. “That’s obviously private.”

Todd “Leif” Ericson, an Inspiration4 mission director, said the flight signaled the start of a new era in spaceflight.

“We are certainly riding on the shoulders of giants across this nation,” Ericson said in a media teleconference Saturday night. “I think today is a good day for America. I think it’s a great day for commercial space travel.

“And I really believe that this mission will be looked at (as) the opening of, really, the second Space Age, where space becomes much more accessible to average men and women across the world.”

SpaceX developed the Crew Dragon spacecraft with assistance and funding from NASA under the auspices of a public-private cost-sharing contract.

NASA awarded $6.8 billion in contracts to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to complete development of new commercial crew capsules to ferry crews to and from the International Space Station, ending the agency’s sole reliance on Russian Soyuz capsules.

SpaceX got $2.6 billion in government funding to design and build the human-rated Crew Dragon spacecraft, and Boeing received a similar $4.2 billion deal for its Starliner spacecraft.

Both programs ran into delays, but SpaceX launched its first astronaut mission for NASA in May 2020, ending a nearly nine-year gap in U.S. orbital crew launches since the retirement of the space shuttle.

Boeing’s Starliner program, on the other hand, still has not flown into space with a crew.

SpaceX has launched four Crew Dragon missions to date, all under contract to NASA. Three of the missions have carried astronauts to the space station.

One of the Crew Dragon missions is still docked at the space station and is scheduled to return to Earth with four astronauts in November, making Inspiration4 the third Dragon flight to return to Earth with human passengers.

After launching on top of a Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday night, the Crew Dragon capsule climbed into an orbit stretching as high as 366 miles (590 kilometers) above Earth, higher than anyone has flown since a space shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope some two decades ago.

The crew members participated in a question-and-answer session with patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Isaacman, 38, conceived of the mission, in part, to raise money and awareness for St. Jude.

Isaacman established four pillars, or values, for the mission, with each seat representing one pillar.

“We set out from the start to deliver a very inspiring message about what can be done up in in space and the possibilities there, but also what we can accomplish here on Earth,” Isaacman said in a press conference before launch.

Isaacman said he chose four mission pillars — leadership, hope, prosperity, and generosity — “to assemble a very inspiring crew, who all have so many amazing qualities and contribute so many interesting firsts of this mission.

“And we also chose to do it through the largest fundraising effort in the history of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, acknowledging the real responsibilities we have here on Earth, in order to earn the right to make progress up in space,” said Isaacman, who took the commander’s seat on the mission to represent leadership.

Isaacman donated $100 million to St. Jude, and started a fundraising effort linked to the Inspiration4 mission to try to raise $100 million more.

Most of the nearly 600 people who have flown in space have been professional astronauts or cosmonauts employed by a government agency. A handful of “space tourists” have flown into orbit, but all launched on spacecraft commanded by a professional astronaut.

In July, space companies founded by billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos accomplished a pair of suborbital flights to the edge of space.

Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, flew with five crewmates on his company’s rocket plane to an altitude of 53 miles (86 kilometers) over New Mexico on July 11, experiencing several minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth.

Blue Origin, Bezos’s space company, launched four people — including Bezos himself — to an altitude of 66 miles (107 kilometers) over West Texas nine days later. Like Branson, Bezos’s crew floated in their capsule for a few minutes before descending back to the planet.

The Inspiration4 mission accelerated must faster speeds — more than 17,000 mph — needed to enter orbit around Earth.

Issacman’s crewmates included Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude and a survivor of childhood bone cancer. She was selected as part of the mission’s “hope” pillar.

Arceneaux became the youngest American to fly in orbit, and the first person with a prosthetic body part to go to space.

Proctor, the fourth Black woman to fly in space, was selected in a competition for the “prosperity” seat on Inspiration4. She used Shift4 Payments, a company bounded by Isaacman, to promote sales of her art and poetry, and submitted a Twitter video for consideration to be a part of the mission.

Sembroski entered a lottery for the “generosity” seat by donating to St. Jude. A college friend won the sweepstakes, but passed on the seat and offered it to Sembroski.

Reed, SpaceX’s human spaceflight director, said Saturday that Inspiration4 was a “very clean mission from start to finish.”

A double-redundant temperature sensor on a Draco thruster dropped offline. “That was never a risk,” Reed said.

Another problem encountered on the three-day mission was an issue with a fan on the Crew Dragon’s waste management system, or toilet.

Without explaining more details, Ericson said officials implemented “contingency procedures and workarounds.”

“The crew was able to, obviously, complete the full duration mission without any real issues,” Ericson said. “As in most exploratory adventures like spaceflight, there’s always you know one or two little hiccups along the way, but this was dealt with amazingly by the SpaceX team.”

Isaacman and his crewmates trained with SpaceX for around six months to familiarize themselves with spacecraft systems and space operations. They were ready to manually command the Crew Dragon spacecraft in the event of an emergency, but the three-day mission flew on autopilot, guided by on-board computers and ground teams at SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California.

Hayley Arceneaux, Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, and Chris Sembroski flew back to Kennedy Space Center by helicopter Saturday night following their splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean just offshore Florida’s coast. Credit: Inspiration4 / John Kraus

By Saturday night, the Inspiration4 fundraising initiative for St. Jude had tallied $160 million, including $100 million donated by Isaacman and $60 million from the public.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, tweeted late Saturday: “Count me in for $50M.”

The donation of another $50 million appeared to put the St. Jude fundraiser over its $200 million goal.

In a live video downlink Friday, the Inspiration4 crew described their “incredible perspective” of Earth from space. Arceneaux detailed some of the scientific experiments measuring any changes in the crew’s bodies and monitoring the radiation environment at an altitude of more than 360 miles, about 100 miles above the orbit of the International Space Station.

The crew members chatted with Musk, Tom Cruise, and U2 lead singer Bono. They also enjoyed panoramic views from a cupola viewing window attached to the front end of the spaceship.

The video update Friday was the first only public downlink from the crew between launch and landing. Space-to-ground communications are broadcast publicly throughout NASA flights to and from the International Space Station, keeping with the government agency’s charter for openness.

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

The Crew Dragon spacecraft was 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 planned to retrieve high-resolution still photos and high-definition video recordings, including imagery from a GoPro 360-degree camera, after splashdown Saturday night. The video will be featured in a Netflix documentary about the mission.

SpaceX has other private crew missions on the books, beginning with the launch of another four-person team on a Dragon spacecraft in early 2022. On that mission, sponsored by the Houston-based company Axiom Space, the Dragon spacecraft will dock with the space station, and the private astronauts will spend about a week living and working there under an arrangement with NASA.

There are also more dedicated NASA flights with SpaceX’s fleet Crew Dragon capsules. SpaceX’s next NASA crew flight is set for launch Oct. 31 from Kennedy Space Center to kick off a six-month expedition to the space station.

“As we look for ways to evolve toward that airline-like model, we’ll look for how we can cut back on the amount of training that’s necessary to ensure safety,” Reed said before Inspiration4’s launch.

“The reality is that the Dragon manifest is getting busier by the moment,” Reed said. “We’re gearing up to fly three, four, five, six times a year, at least.”

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