STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION
The Inspiration4 crew members wrapped up their third and final day in orbit Saturday and set their sights on an automated plunge back to Earth, a steep descent to an evening splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Canaveral to wrap up a history-making flight.
If all goes well, the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s flight computer will fire the ship’s Draco braking rockets at 6:16 p.m. EDT, slowing the capsule enough to lower the far side of the orbit into the atmosphere for a southwest-to-northeast descent across Central America and the Florida peninsula.
Heralded by sonic booms, the capsule is expected to splash down under four large parachutes at 7:06 p.m. EDT about 30 miles northeast of the crew’s Kennedy Space Center launch site, closing out the first all-civilian privately-funded flight to orbit in space history.
Expected mission duration: 71 hours and three minutes.
Billionaire commander Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Chris Sembroski and Hayley Arceneaux plan to remain inside their capsule until after recovery crews haul the spacecraft aboard SpaceX’s “Go Searcher” support ship.
The recovery team will “jump out, do their thing, they’ll hook up the lanyards or straps (and) pull them on (board),” said Inspiration4 mission director Scott “Kidd” Poteet, a former Air Force Thunderbirds pilot. “That’s just going to be a couple minutes by the time they get on the deck, which is the same procedures they’ve used in the past with NASA.
“They’ll slide the capsule right up against the deck and we’ll open the hatch. The first one in is the doc to do his initial assessment. I’ll be sitting right there at the door, anxious to greet them all.”
After that, all four crew members will board a helicopter for the short flight back to the Kennedy Space Center’s 3-mile-long shuttle runway for reunions and post-flight celebration.
“The priority is to make sure they’re healthy,” Poteet said. “There’s a medical assessment, they’re going to get showered up, change and prepare to jump on the helo for the flight back. I think it’s about a 25-minute flight … and the families are going to be right there to welcome them home.”
Isaacman, the CEO of a payment processing company and an accomplished jet pilot, chartered the flight as part of a personal drive to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He kicked in the first $100 million himself and set up a donations program that has pulled in $50 million to date.
Arceneaux is a childhood cancer survivor who was treated at St. Jude and is now a physician assistant at the famed research center. Proctor, a one-time astronaut finalist, educator and artist, and Sembroski, an aerospace engineer, were selected as part of an on-line contest.
All four spent six months training for the Inspiration4 flight and all four appeared to be having the time of their lives in orbit as seen in the few glimpses seen by the public during the mission. A more extensive look at the flight will be presented as part of an on-going Netflix documentary.
“They were rock stars from the very beginning,” Poteet said. “And that’s a testament to SpaceX and the training that they went through over the last six-plus months, in addition to some of the additional training that we came up with to make sure they’re fully prepared.”
Isaacman, he said, was committed to “a 100% successful mission, and thus far it has been.”
The mission began at 8:02 p.m. Wednesday when the crew’s Falcon 9 rocket roared to life and shot away from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The booster propelled the Crew Dragon capsule into a 365-mile-high orbit some 100 miles higher than the International Space Station.
During their three days in space, Isaacman and company collected medical data to chart their adaptation to weightlessness, chatted with patients at St. Jude, gave the public a televised tour of their capsule and showed off the hemispheric dome SpaceX installed to provide spectacular 360-degree views of Earth and space.
The crew also talked by radio with friends and family, including SpaceX founder Elon Musk, company president Gwynne Shotwell, actor Tom Cruise and rock star Bono of U2.
“Tom was obviously super excited, offering us a viewing of ‘Top Gun 2,'” Poteet said. “Us being aviation enthusiasts, we’re pretty excited about that one, for sure.”
While about half the people who fly in space suffer from space motion sickness during their first few days in weightlessness, the Inspiration4 crew appeared cheerful and healthy in the video clips downlinked during the mission.
“They’ve been absolute rock stars, and we couldn’t be prouder,” Poteet said.
Asked if the crew had to deal with any technical problems during the flight, he said there were a few “minor challenges” but nothing of any significance.
“For example, there was a minor waste management issue that the crew and mission control were required to troubleshoot,” he said, not adding any details. “But honestly, this did not impact the mission. … It was a huge success. To quote SpaceX, it was one of the most successful missions thus far that they’ve been able to execute. So overall, we couldn’t be happier.”
Isaacman, Proctor, Sembroski and Arceneaux became the 588th, 589th, 590th and 591st individuals to fly in space, pushing the U.S. total to 311 men and 56 women. They were the 25th through 28th people to fly in space on a purely commercial basis and the first privately funded, non-government crew to make it into orbit.