‘All-civilian’ crew splashes down, ending charity space mission

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SpaceX Dragon splashdown
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule descends to a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. (Inspiration4 Photo)

The first non-governmental flight to orbit ended with a splash — and with the safe return of the Inspiration4 mission’s billionaire commander and his three crewmates.

Shift4 Payment’s 38-year-old founder and CEO, Jared Isaacman, paid what’s thought to be a price of more than $100 million for the three-day flight. The mission began on Wednesday evening with a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch and ended at 7:06 p.m. ET (4:06 p.m. PT) today with the splashdown of SpaceX’s reusable Crew Dragon capsule in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

Inspiration4’s main goal is to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In addition to paying for the flight, Isaacman committed to donating half that amount, and another $60 million has been raised to date through other contributions and marketing deals.

Isaacman’s three crewmates were chosen by various means:

  • Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old cancer survivor who’s now a physician assistant at St. Jude, was picked by the hospital and goes into the history books as the youngest American in space as well as the first person to fly in orbit with a prosthetic (in the form of a titanium rod in her leg).
  • Sian Proctor, 51, is an educator and artist who won an online competition for users of Shift4’s online payment system. She’s the first Black woman to serve as a space mission’s pilot.
  • Chris Sembroski, 42, an Air Force veteran, space enthusiast and data engineer from Everett, Wash., got his chance to fly courtesy of a college friend who won a charity sweepstakes and arranged for Sembroski to go instead.

In advance of the mission, the foursome went through months of training, including hours upon hours of simulations, a zero-G airplane flight, high-G jet flights, nausea-inducing centrifuge spins and a grueling Mount Rainier climb.

During their time in orbit, the crew participated in Friday’s closing-bell ceremony on the New York Stock Exchange, chatted with St. Jude cancer patients and their families, took calls from celebrities including Tom Cruise and U2’s Bono, and spent lots of time gazing out at Earth through SpaceX’s custom-built cupola window.

This flight was different from SpaceX’s three earlier crewed flights, in that it didn’t include a docking at the International Space Station. Instead, the Crew Dragon headed for an orbit that rose as high as 585 kilometers (363.5 miles), which is the highest that humans have flown since the space shuttle Discovery visited the Hubble Space Telescope in 1999.

Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of human spaceflight programs, said the crew faced no major issues during the flight. “This mission was awesome,” he told reporters after the splashdown.

The only issues had to do with a temperature sensor that was reporting bad data about one of the capsule’s Draco thrusters, and a balky fan that’s part of the onboard waste management system. “There are contingency procedures and workarounds that were implemented,” Todd Ericson, one of Inspiration4’s mission directors, said — without going into detail.

Ericson said that in the early stages of the mission, the foursome experienced the normal level of space adaptation syndrome, also known as space sickness. (Studies have found that more than half of all orbital space travelers get sick at first.) But all four looked well and flashed big smiles during SpaceX’s webcast of the descent.

Ericson said Isaacman and Proctor monitored the Crew Dragon’s autonomous control system throughout the flight, but never had to take manual control. “It’s very automated,” he explained. “Basically the pilots, like an airline pilot would do, are confirming that things are going along properly. They’re also prepared for contingency operations.”

At one point during the descent, today’s webcast showed Sembroski watching a video program on his tablet — and Isaacman later joked that the crew was having “a great time with in-flight entertainment.”

In the final minutes of the flight, cameras caught the Crew Dragon capsule floating down toward the Atlantic at the end of its red-and-white parachutes.

After splashdown, SpaceX was the first to welcome the crew back to Earth. “Your mission has shown the world that space is for all of us, and that everyday people can make an extraordinary impact on the world around them,” mission control said.

“It was a heck of a ride for us,” Isaacman replied. “This is just getting started.”

The recovery team pulled the Crew Dragon capsule onto a ship called the Go Searcher with the spacefliers on board. They were brought out, one by one, for an initial round of medical checks. A helicopter then ferried them back to Florida to be reunited with their families.

The next U.S. orbital flight to carry riders who are paying their own way will also make use of a SpaceX Crew Dragon, with launch scheduled for early next year. That flight is being arranged by Texas-based Axiom Space, with former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria serving as Axiom’s commander. Three investors — Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe — are each paying an estimated fare of $55 million for what’s expected to be a 10-day visit to the International Space Station.

SpaceX’s Reed said more customers have expressed interest in buying a ride to orbit. “The amount of people who are approaching us through our sales and marketing portal has actually increased significantly. … There’s lots of interest, and it’s growing now, a lot,” he said.

The Russian space agency is due to conduct a completely different kind of commercial space mission next month: An actress and film producer will be launched to the space station on a Soyuz craft to film scenes for a movie tentatively titled “The Challenge.” Tom Cruise is also thought to be in line to star in a space-filmed movie, with Axiom Space, SpaceX and NASA playing supporting roles.

This report has been updated with information from a post-splashdown news briefing.



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