SpaceX Inspiration4’s four new astronauts splashed down in the Atlantic off Florida’s coast on Saturday, ending the first flight of all-civilian astronauts into space.
The trip was the latest in a recent string of rocket-powered expeditions, funded by their billionaire passengers, and marked an important milestone in commercial astro-tourism one-hundred years after the first human ventured into space.
“Welcome to the second space age,” Todd “Leif” Ericson, mission director for the Inspiration4 venture, told reporters on a conference call after the crew returned.
The spacecraft was supplied, launched, controlled during flight, and recovered by SpaceX, the rocketry company started by Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) electric automaker CEO Elon Musk.
Around 7 p.m. on Saturday, SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule Resilience landed in calm seas after a three-day mission. On a live SpaceX webcast, SpaceX showed two automated rocket reentry descents shortly before sunset, just before sunset EDT (2300 GMT).
A SpaceX recovery boat was able to hoist the capsule from the ocean to the deck of the vessel within an hour, with the four smiling crew members emerging one by one from the capsule’s side hatch.
The four astronauts spent a few moments on the deck waving at the capsule and giving thumbs up before being taken to a medical station for checks at sea. After returning to Cape Canaveral, they were reunited with family members by helicopter.
After landing in Earth’s atmosphere, the capsule’s temperature rose to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,900 degrees Celsius) as it plunged through friction. Spacesuits equipped with special ventilation were designed to keep astronauts cool if the cabin became too hot.
As the first parachutes deployed, SpaceX flight controllers in suburban Los Angeles erupted in applause as the capsule slowed to about 15 miles per hour (25 kph) before splashdown, and we all cheered again when the capsule hit the water.
As they stepped onto the deck of the recovery vessel, the astronauts were greeted once more by cheers.
A childhood bone cancer survivor, Arceneaux, 29, is first out on the Inspiration4 mission. She became the youngest person ever to reach Earth orbit.
Her successors included geoscientist Sian Proctor, 51, aerospace engineer Chris Sembroski, 42, and the segment’s billionaire benefactor, Jared Isaacman, 38.
“That was a heck of a ride for us,” Isaacman, chief executive of the e-commerce firm Shift4 Payments Inc (FOUR.N), radioed from inside the capsule moments after splashdown. “We’re just getting started.”
The amount paid by Musk for all four seats aboard the Crew Dragon is undisclosed, but Time magazine estimates it at $200 million.
The Inspiration4 team took off from Cape Canaveral on Wednesday aboard a two-stage reusable Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX.
Since Apollo, this is the highest orbit
A cruising orbital altitude of 585 km, or 363 miles, was achieved in three hours – higher than the International Space Station, and the greatest human distance traveled since the Apollo moon program ended in 1972.
As well as marking the debut flight of Musk’s new business, it is a leap ahead of other companies offering – for much more money – the thrill of spaceflight and earning amateur astronaut wings.
Musk’s company has already launched numerous astronauts and cargo payloads to NASA’s space station as the leading player in the burgeoning commercial rocket industry.
In the recent months, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc (SPCE.N) and Blue Origin launched their own spac66e tourism companies, with billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, founders of Amazo66n.com (AMZN.O), on board.
Compared to Inspiration4, which spent three days in orbit, these suborbital flights lasted a matter of minutes.
Isaacman founded Inspiration4 as a way to raise funds for St. Jude, one of Isaacman’s favorite charities. Arceneaux now works for St. Jude. In addition to Isaacman’s initial gift, the flight has so far raised $160 million for the cancer institute.
The Inspiration4 crew was not involved in the flight of the spacecraft, which was controlled by ground-based flight teams and onboard guidance systems, even though Isaacman and Proctor are both licensed pilots.
In the event of an emergency, Ericson stressed, the Crew Dragon crew has “the same training, controls, and authority that NASA astronauts have.”
In an interview, SpaceX’s chief of human spaceflight, Benji Reed, remarked that the flight was relatively uneventful and that only two issues prevented the crew from using the restrooms and one engine from flying.
During acclimatization to a microgravity environment, the crew experienced “space adaptation syndrome,” or vertigo and motion sickness, “which was to be expected,” Ericson said.
They performed zero-G somersaults in the cabin and strung a ukulele for Earthbound audiences during their flight.