SpaceX’s first four space tourists returned to Earth on Saturday night, September 18, after spending three days in space, capping the success of the first orbital mission in history that did not include any professional astronauts on board. The Dragon capsule withstood the dizzying descent thanks to its heat shield, then was slowed by four huge parachutes. The landing in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida took place at the scheduled time, 23:06 GMT (19:06 local time). “It’s been quite a journey for us, and it’s just begun,” billionaire captain Jared Isaacman said shortly afterwards.
A SpaceX boat then took the capsule. The four passengers, grinning from ear to ear, got out one by one. They were then to be transported by helicopter to the Kennedy Space Center, from where they took off on Wednesday night, and where they were to be reunited with their families. “Congratulations Inspiration4,” tweeted SpaceX boss Elon Musk after the dive, using the mission’s official name. The four Americans traveled beyond the International Space Station (ISS), up to 590 km altitude. Spinning at around 28,000 km/h, they circled the world more than 15 times a day.
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The mission’s stated goal was to mark a turning point in the democratization of space, proving that the cosmos is just as accessible to crews that haven’t been handpicked and trained for years as astronauts. . “Welcome to the second space age,” Inspiration4 mission manager Todd “Leif” Ericson said at a press conference on Saturday. With the latter, “space travel becomes much more accessible to ordinary people,” he said.
Jared Isaacman, the 38-year-old head of a financial services company, paid SpaceX tens and tens of millions of dollars (the exact price was not revealed). He had offered three seats to strangers, including Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old medical assistant who became the youngest American, but also the first person with a prosthetic (femur), to go into space. Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old Earth science professor, and Chris Sembroski, a 42-year veteran of the United States Air Force, completed the crew.
Next flight already booked
Before the trip, their training lasted less than six months. The flight remained fully automated, but they were trained to take control when necessary. Once up there, they remarkably collected data (heart rate, sleep, blood oxygen saturation, cognitive skills, etc.) that should allow for a better understanding of the effect of the space environment on beginners. But they also enjoyed the view of the cosmos through a new observation dome installed on Dragon, were able to chat with actor Tom Cruise from his ship, eat pizza or even enjoy the joys of lightness in music. Only one small problem arose during the flight, with the toilet system, but a solution was found quickly, Ericson said, without elaborating.
The mission also serves as a major fundraiser for St Jude Children’s Hospital (Memphis, Tennessee), where Hayley Arceneaux works after being treated there as a child for cancer. On the ship were several objects (ukulele…) that must now be auctioned for the benefit of the hospital. About $160 million has been raised so far, including $100 million donated by Jared Isaacman.
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This is the third time that Elon Musk’s company, which in a few years has become a giant in the sector, has brought humans back to Earth: in previous NASA missions, six astronauts had already experienced a landing aboard the same ship, after a stay on the ISS.
Inspiration4 concludes a summer marked by the flight of billionaires over the final frontier: first Richard Branson on July 11 aboard the Virgin Galactic, then a few days later Jeff Bezos with his company Blue Origin. But these suborbital flights only offered them a few minutes of weightlessness.
SpaceX plans more space tourism flights at a later date. The next one from January 2022, with three entrepreneurs on board. “The number of people who have contacted us … has grown considerably,” Benji Reed, SpaceX’s head of human spaceflight, said Saturday. And to specify that the company was working on two improvements on board: adding the possibility to reheat food and wifi.