Sept. 18 (Reuters) – The newly created quartet of citizen astronauts including the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission splashed safely in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida on Saturday, completing a three-day flight of the first all-civilian crew ever sent in Earth orbit.
The successful launch and return of the mission, the latest in a recent series of rocket-propelled expeditions funded by their billionaire passengers, marked another milestone in the nascent commercial astrotourism industry, 60 years after the dawn of human spaceflight.
“Welcome to the second space age,” Todd “Leif” Ericson, mission director for Inspiration4, told reporters on a conference call after the crew returned.
SpaceX, the private rocket company founded by Elon Musk, CEO of electric automaker Tesla Inc (TSLA.O), supplied the spacecraft, launched it, controlled its flight and handled the recovery operation of the ditching.
The three-day mission ended when the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, parachuted into calm seas around 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT), shortly before sunset, after an automated re-entry descent, as shown during a live webcast from SpaceX on its YouTube channel. .
In less than an hour, the four smiling crew members were seen emerging one by one from the capsule’s side hatch after the vehicle, visibly burnt on the outside, was hoisted from the ocean to the deck of ‘a SpaceX salvage ship.
Each of the four stood for a few moments on the deck in front of the capsule to greet and greet before being escorted to a medical station on board for examinations at sea. Then, they were returned by helicopter to Cape Canaveral for a reunion. with their loved ones.
The return from orbit followed a dive into the Earth’s atmosphere generating frictional heat that raised temperatures around the exterior of the capsule to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,900 degrees Celsius). The astronauts’ flight suits, equipped with special ventilation systems, were designed to keep them cool if the cabin got warm.
Applause was heard from SpaceX’s flight control center on the outskirts of Los Angeles as the first parachutes deployed, slowing the descent of the capsule to about 15 miles per hour (25 km / h) before landing. , with another burst of cheers as the craft hit the water.
The astronauts were once again cheered as they climbed onto the deck of the salvage ship.
The first to come out was Hayely Arceneaux, 29, a medical assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Center in Tennessee, herself a survivor of childhood bone cancer who became the youngest person to ever reach Earth orbit. during the Inspiration4 mission.
It was quickly followed by geoscientist and former NASA astronaut candidate Sian Proctor, 51, aerospace data engineer and Air Force veteran Chris Sembroski, 42, and finally billionaire benefactor and “mission commander. from the crew Jared Isaacman, 38.
“It was a hell of a ride for us,” said Isaacman, managing director of e-commerce company Shift4 Payments Inc (FOUR.N), inside the capsule moments after landing on the water. “We’re just getting started.”
He had paid an undisclosed sum – estimated by Time magazine to be around $ 200 million – to his billionaire colleague Musk for the four seats aboard the Crew Dragon.
The Inspiration4 team took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on Wednesday on top of one of SpaceX’s reusable double-stage Falcon 9 rockets.
HIGHEST ORBIT SINCE APOLLO
Within three hours, the crew capsule had reached a cruising orbital altitude of 585 km, or just over 363 miles – higher than the International Space Station or the Hubble Space Telescope, and farther than a human. has flown from Earth since the end of NASA’s Apollo lunar program in 1972..
It also marked the first flight of Musk’s new space tourism business and a leap forward over its competitors also offering rocket rides to well-heeled customers willing to pay a small fortune to experience the exhilaration of flights. space and earn amateur astronaut wings.
Musk’s company already ranks as the most established player in the burgeoning constellation of commercial rocket companies, having launched numerous payloads of cargo and astronauts to the NASA space station.
Two rival operators, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc (SPCE.N) and Blue Origin, have launched their own space tourism services in recent months, with their respective founding executives, billionaires Richard Branson and founder of Amazon.com (AMZN. O) Jeff Bezos, each accompany for the ride.
These suborbital flights, lasting a few minutes, were short leaps from the three days of Inspiration4 in orbit.
Isaacman designed Inspiration4 primarily to raise awareness and donate for St. Jude, one of his favorite causes, where Arceneaux now works. Ericson said the theft has so far raised $ 160 million for the cancer institute, including $ 100 million initially donated by Isaacman.
The Inspiration4 crew played no role in piloting the spacecraft, which was controlled by ground flight crews and on-board guidance systems, although both Isaacman and Proctor were licensed pilots.
But Ericson insisted the crew had “the same training and control and authority as NASA astronauts” to intervene in the Crew Dragon operation in an emergency.
SpaceX manned spaceflight chief Benji Reed marveled at the few issues that arose during the flight, citing just two issues he described as minor and easy to fix – a faulty fan in the system. crew toilet and a faulty temperature sensor on one of the spacecraft’s engines.
The level of “space adaptation syndrome” experienced by the crew – dizziness and motion sickness upon acclimatization to a microgravity environment – was “roughly in line with what NASA astronauts do,” said Ericson said.
All four had appeared relaxed and energetic in a number of live video appearances they had made for a terrestrial audience during their flight, ranging from zero-G somersaults in the cabin to the strumming of a ukulele.
Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis, David Gregorio and William Mallard
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