Four people returned to Earth after a three-day alien excursion aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on Saturday night, marking the end of the first-ever flight to Earth orbit entirely piloted by tourists or non-astronauts.
“Thanks a lot SpaceX, it was a hell of a ride for us,” billionaire and mission commander “Inspiration4” Jared Isaacman was heard to say during the company’s livestream.
The crew have been shown watching movies and occasionally heard SpaceX mission control respond inside their fully autonomous spacecraft before they began the relentless process of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. After traveling at over 17,000 miles an hour, the spacecraft used Earth’s thick blanket of air to slow itself down, with the exterior of the spacecraft reaching temperatures of up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Crew Dragon capsule, designed not to let the temperatures exceed 85º in the cabin, used its heat shield to protect the crew against the intense heat and the accumulation of plasma as they plunged back towards the ocean.
After emerging from the spaceship, just before being returned to Florida by helicopter, the crew were seen smiling and waving to the live cameras.
But the flight was apparently not completely flawless from a technical point of view. “You know we had a few issues that we worked on, we worked something on the waste management system,” Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX, said during a post-flight briefing. “But it was good, and you know the crew were happy and healthy,” he added.
Inspiration4 Mission Director Todd Ericson said the issue was with the waste management system fan. The SpaceX team responded by implementing “a back-up plan.”
“I take my hat off to them,” Ericson added.
Reed also said there was an issue with a temperature sensor in one of the Draco thrusters used to move the capsule through space, but the company responded by taking the “dual redundant” sensor offline.
“And in fact, Draco himself was redundant, it was never a risk,” Reed said.
NASA officials have said, however, that the Crew Dragon is possibly the safest crewed vehicle ever flown. And the vehicle had already made two successful trips to space with professional astronauts on board before this group of space tourists made their multi-day ride.
Passengers included Isaacman, 38, who personally funded and organized the trip with SpaceX and its CEO, Elon Musk; Hayley Arceneaux, 29, childhood cancer survivor and medical assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; Sian Procotor, 51, geologist and community college teacher with a doctorate; and Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old Lockheed Martin employee and longtime space fan who claimed his seat through an online raffle.
Isaacman touted the mission as a fundraiser for St. Jude, and it had raised $ 160 million of its goal of $ 200 million on Saturday night.
“Count me for $ 50 million,” Musk then promised in a tweet, which would put the $ 10 million fundraiser above its goal.
Although they weren’t the first tourists to go to orbit, their mission, called Inspiration4, was remarkable because it did not involve a stay at the International Space Station under the tutelage of professional astronauts, as did previous missions involving space tourists. Instead, the four spaceflight novices have spent the last three days flying freely aboard their 13-foot-wide capsule at about 350 miles above sea level – 100 miles higher than where the ‘ISS, and higher than any human has flown in decades.
While in space, the civilians on board said they would conduct some scientific research focused on how their bodies react to space, take the time to chat with their families, look out a large shaped window. dome called “cupola”, and listen to music. In a live broadcast shared with audiences on Friday, Proctor also showed off artwork she made during her stay with metal markers and Sembroski strummed a ukulele that will be auctioned off as part of the St. Jude fundraiser.
The Inspiration4 Twitter account also shared footage of Arceneaux speaking to his patients in St. Jude, and Isaacman rang the New York Stock Exchange closing bell via a satellite feed on Friday afternoon.
Other than that, few updates were shared with the public while the crew was in orbit. The first live audio or visual recordings from inside the crew capsule were shared on Friday afternoon, nearly two days after launch.
During previous SpaceX Crew Dragon missions – all of which were carried out for NASA and transported professional astronauts to the International Space Station – the public had more insight. The space agency and its dozens of communications staff have worked alongside SpaceX to share virtually every moment of the journey from launch to docking astronauts to the International Space Station.
But that mission left the public largely in the dark when it came to questions about the crew’s schedule and how they felt in orbit. Even though the development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft has been largely taxpayer funded, and SpaceX leases NASA facilities to support all of its missions, Inspiration4 is considered a private trade mission. This means that SpaceX customers only need to be as transparent as they want.
There could be several reasons why space tourists were shy about advertising during their trip. It is possible, for example, that the crew will not feel very well after reaching orbit for the first time. According to a NASA research paper, “many astronauts report symptoms of motion sickness right after arriving in space and again right after returning to Earth” and getting a good night’s sleep in orbit was “also a serious challenge for many crew members aboard shuttle missions “. It’s also possible that the four novice space explorers want to keep their privacy or just enjoy the experience without having to stop to talk about it.
But favorable reviews of their experience could be crucial. SpaceX is hoping this mission will be the first in a long series, creating a new line of business for the company in which it uses Crew Dragon to conduct trade missions with tourists or private researchers rather than mere professional astronauts.
SpaceX already has contracts for five other private missions, as well as at least four additional missions under contract with NASA.
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