© Reuters. Inspiration4 crew Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Hayley Arceneaux and Chris Sembroski, who can be seen on their first day in space in this handout photo posted on September 17, 2021. SpaceX / Handout via REUTERS
Posted by Steve Gorman
(Reuters) – The quartet of freshly minted civil astronauts, consisting of the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission, splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean off Florida's coast on Saturday and completed a three-day flight of the first all-civilian crew ever launched into orbit.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule, named Resilience, parachuted into the calm sea at around 7 p.m. EDT, just before sunset, after an automated re-entry descent, showed SpaceX during a live webcast on its YouTube channel.
Within an hour, the four smiling crew members emerged one after the other from the side hatch of the capsule after the vehicle, which was visible from the outside, was heaved out of the sea onto the deck of a SpaceX salvage ship.
Each of the four stood on the deck in front of the capsule for a few moments to wave to the cameras and give thumbs up. Everyone was then escorted to a medical station on board for examination at sea.
After that, the amateur astronauts should be flown back to Cape Canaveral by helicopter to meet with loved ones, SpaceX said.
The return from orbit followed a fall through Earth's atmosphere that generated frictional heat that raised temperatures around the outside of the capsule to 1,927 degrees Celsius. The astronauts' flight suits, which are equipped with special ventilation systems, should keep them cool when the cabin heats up.
Applause could be heard from the SpaceX flight control center in suburban Los Angeles as the first parachutes deployed, slowing the descent of the capsule to about 15.4 miles per hour before the plane hit the water.
The astronauts were cheered again as they stepped onto the deck of the salvage ship.
The first was Hayely Arceneaux, 29, a medical assistant at St. Jude Children's Research Center in Tennessee, herself a childhood bone cancer survivor who became the youngest person to enter Earth orbit on the Inspiration4 mission.
It was followed in quick succession by geoscientist and former NASA astronaut candidate Sian Proctor, 51, aerospace data engineer and Air Force veteran Chris Sembroski, 42, and finally the billionaire crew benefactor and "mission commander" Jared Isaacman, 38.
SpaceX, the private rocket company founded by the CEO of electric car maker Tesla (NASDAQ 🙂 Inc.
The Inspiration4 team took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on Wednesday on one of SpaceX's two-stage reusable Falcon 9 rockets.
Within three hours, the crew capsule had reached an orbital height of just over 363 miles (585 km) – higher than the International Space Station or the Hubble Space Telescope and the furthest distance a person has traveled since the end of NASA's Apollo lunar program in that year Removed from Earth in 1972.
It was also the debut flight of Musk's new space tourism business and a leap ahead of the competition, which also offered well-heeled customers rides on rocket ships willing to pay a small fortune to experience the exhilaration of space travel and amateur astronaut wings to earn.
“That was a lot of fun for us,” radioed Isaacman, CEO of the e-commerce company Shift4 Payments Inc., shortly after the injection from the capsule. "We're just getting started."
He had paid billionaire Musk an undisclosed but allegedly enormous sum for all four seats on Crew Dragon – estimated by Time Magazine at around $ 200 million.
Isaacman conceived the flight primarily to raise awareness and fundraise for St. Jude, one of his favorite destinations where Arceneaux now works.
The Inspiration4 crew played no role in flying the spacecraft, which was operated by ground-based flight teams and on-board control systems, although Isaacman and Proctor are both licensed pilots.
The successful start and the safe return of the mission should stimulate the still young astrotourism sector.
Already the most established player in the burgeoning constellation of commercial rocket companies, SpaceX has brought numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the space station for NASA.
Two competing operators, Virgin Galactic Holdings (NYSE 🙂 Inc and Blue Origin, have launched their own space tourism services in recent months, with their respective founding members, billionaires Richard Branson and Amazon.com founder (NASDAQ 🙂 Jeff Bezos join in for the trip.
These suborbital flights, which lasted only a few minutes, were short jumps compared to the three days in orbit of Inspiration4.
(Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio)