SpaceX Inspiration4 crew splash down after first all-civilian space flight

Mission led by billionaire Jared Isaacman returns to Earth after three days in orbit

Four civilians returned to Earth at the end of a history-making SpaceX mission on Saturday, splashing down off the coast of Florida after a three-day orbital space flight.

The heat generated from atmospheric friction during the free-fall to Earth sent temperatures on the outside of the capsule soaring to more than 1,900°C degrees.

But almost exactly 72 hours since it blasted into orbit on the most ambitious space tourism mission to date, the Dragon capsule passed through the atmosphere and landed in the Atlantic under four parachute canopies.

Inspiration4 made history as the first space mission to take place without any professional astronauts on board.

It was funded and led by billionaire Jared Isaacman, who chose three passengers to accompany him on a three-day orbital mission that made the short hops into space achieved by fellow billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos earlier in the summer look comparatively pedestrian.

"That was a heck of a ride for us, and we're just getting started," Mr Isaacman said shortly after splashdown.

"Welcome to the second space age," Todd Ericson, mission director for the Inspiration4 venture, told reporters on a conference call after the crew returned.

Mr Isaacman, who founded the payments processing company Shift4 Payments as a teenager, paid an undisclosed but reportedly enormous sum to Elon Musk for all four seats aboard the Crew Dragon. Time magazine estimated the cost at $200 million.

Mr Isaacman was joined by three less affluent passengers – geoscientist and former Nasa astronaut candidate Sian Proctor, 51, physician associate and childhood bone cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux, 29, and aerospace data engineer and Air Force veteran Chris Sembroski, 42.

Within three hours of taking off from the Kennedy Space Centre’s hallowed launch pad 39-A, where Nasa astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins began their voyage to the Moon more than 50 years ago, the crew had reached an orbital altitude of just over 585 kilometres – the farthest any human has flown from Earth since the last Apollo mission in in 1972.

Pictures shared on social media showed the four private astronauts enjoying spectacular views of the Earth from an altitude higher than the International Space Station or Hubble Space Telescope.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft, named Resilience, was fitted with a special observation cupola in place of the docking port usually used to connect to the ISS.

"We have been spending so much time in this cupola," Ms Arceneaux said in a live video on Friday.

"We can put our heads in and fit multiple crewmembers and see the entire perimeter of Earth. And the views, I have to say, are out of this world," said Ms Arcenaux, who became the youngest American and first person with a prosthesis ever to fly to space.

Mr Isaacman intended to use the flight primarily to raise awareness and donations for the St Jude Children's Research Hospital, a leading paediatric cancer centre in Memphis, Tennessee, where Ms Arceneaux was a patient and now works.

The Inspiration4 crew had no part to play in flying the spacecraft, which was operated by ground-based flight teams and onboard guidance systems, even though Mr Isaacman and Ms Proctor are both experienced pilots.

The crew did however perform a series of experiments to study effects of space flight on the human body and brought with them several items, including a ukulele, that will be auctioned off later to raise more for the hospital.

SpaceX already ranked as the most well-established player in the burgeoning constellation of commercial space companies, having launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the space station for Nasa.

Inspiration4 marked the first foray into space tourism for SpaceX and capped off a summer of pioneering missions from Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.

Benji Reed, a SpaceX director, anticipates as many as six private flights a year, sandwiched between astronaut launches for Nasa.

Four SpaceX flights are already booked carry paying customers to the space station, accompanied by former Nasa astronauts.

The first is targeted for early next year with three businessmen paying $55m each. Russia also plans to take up an actor and film director for filming next month and a Japanese tycoon in December.

SpaceX has an even more ambitious tourism flight planned however, with Japanese billionaire Yusaka Maezawa due to take a crew of artists on a voyage around the Moon.

That mission, which would use a version of SpaceX’s Starship rocket which is in development, could take off as early as 2023.

Updated: September 19th 2021, 5:25 AM
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