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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

SpaceX's Inspiration4 Returns After 3 Days in Orbit

After spending three days about 360 miles above the ground, the all-civilian crew of SpaceX’s Inspiration4 have returned to Earth. Their Crew Dragon capsule slowed down to 15 miles per hour as it descended under four parachutes and splashed down at 7:07 pm Eastern off the Atlantic coast of Florida, not far from where they launched on Wednesday evening.

“Welcome home to planet Earth. Your mission has shown the world that space is for all of us and that everyday people can make extraordinary impacts in the world around them,” came the voice of SpaceX quality engineer Andy Tran, who was one of the hosts of the company’s livestream from mission control in Hawthorne, California. 

“Thank you so much SpaceX, it was a heck of a ride for us,” replied the voice of commander Jared Isaacman. “We’re just getting started!"

“Copy just getting started,” returned Tran.

Their landing spot depended on weather and ocean conditions, which cooperated with their plans: The sky was clear of storms and the water wasn’t choppy. SpaceX also coordinated with the Coast Guard to ensure safety in the area and to discourage boaters from entering the splashdown zone, as they did last year when two American astronauts splashed down in a SpaceX capsule in the Gulf of Mexico.

SpaceX personnel quickly approached the Inspiration4 capsule aboard small boats in order to extract the astronauts and bring them to dry land. The recovery process is expected to take about an hour. From there, the crew will undergo some medical evaluations, head to a private party, and then finally they’ll return home.

“This is the beginning of the private space tourism industry, beyond the suborbital stuff we saw this summer. It’s not like five minutes, a little moment of microgravity, and it’s over. This is much more what the public understands as space tourism,” said Jordan Bimm, a space historian at the University of Chicago.

The Dragon’s manifest includes paying customer Isaacman, the billionaire CEO of the payment processing company Shift4Payments, and three people whose tickets he sponsored: Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and artist; Chris Sembroski, an aeronautical engineer; and Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant. Proctor is the fourth African American woman to go to space, and Arceneaux made history as the first space traveler with a prosthetic body part. She’s a bone cancer survivor and once was a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Memphis, Tennessee, nonprofit for which the Inspiration4 team aims to raise at least $200 million, a goal they have already nearly reached.

Although Dragon flies autonomously, both Proctor and Isaacman, who aren’t professional astronauts, nonetheless have training that would have allowed them to pilot the capsule if necessary. The crew kept busy while orbiting the Earth 15 times a day: Isaacman kept track of the spacecraft’s systems and kept in touch with mission control. Arceneaux conducted medical research on the health effects of space radiation and of extremely low levels of gravity, which can have effects on vision. In collaboration with researchers on the ground at Baylor College and Cornell University, the crew members collected biological samples and biomedical data from each other during the flight, monitoring their heart rates, blood oxygen saturation, and sleep, among other things. Arceneaux also imaged her crewmates’ eyes and other organs using a handheld ultrasound scanner called the Butterfly IQ+, an artificial intelligence-enabled device that is also being tested on the International Space Station.

Proctor brought on board pens, ink, markers, and watercolor paint, although she wasn’t sure how well they’d work in a near-zero-gravity environment. She focused on her metallic markers to make artwork on the second day of their flight. “Here’s my rendition of the Dragon capsule being carried by a dragon off the Earth,” Proctor said, holding up her drawing during a live on-orbit update on Friday.

After that, Sembroski serenaded his crewmates with a tune on his custom-made ukulele. “It’s still before coffee, so it’ll get better,” he said, being modest about his musical skills.

Throughout it all, they enjoyed panoramic views of our entire blue marble from the Dragon’s cupola, a large dome-shaped window specially built for it, replacing the docking hatch that would have been used if the spacecraft was intended to hook up with the space station. “This is the biggest window ever flown in space. Looking through this window, we can see the entire perimeter of the Earth. It’s so beautiful!” Arceneaux said in a video released for St. Jude while in orbit on Friday. Behind her, a vast ocean behind a smattering of clouds could be seen. Arceneaux also enjoyed being in microgravity. “She has been spinning from the moment we got on orbit,” said Proctor, during the on-orbit update.

Inspiration4 marks the third private spaceflight of the summer, following the much shorter, lower-altitude flights by Richard Branson on a Virgin Galactic spacecraft and Jeff Bezos on a Blue Origin one. But the Inspiration4 mission is the first to orbit the planet, voyaging even above the ISS. Four different private orbital missions are scheduled over the next year or so, including ones by SpaceX and Axiom Space, the Houston-based space infrastructure company. All are headed to the space station.

As the space tourism industry grows, environmentalists certainly will pay attention to the carbon emission costs of every flight. And as civilian trips become more common, they’ll also come with more chances for accidents, which are almost always fatal. Space travel is risky. NASA flew 135 space shuttle missions over three decades, and two of them ended in disaster. The first of those two, the 1986 Challenger mission, included Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher and the first American civilian selected to go to space.

Although liftoff and reentry are the most dangerous parts of spaceflights, astronauts aren’t totally safe in space either, thanks to the thousands of bits of space junk in orbit, many of which are too small to be tracked. “Low-probability very-high-impact events do happen if one rolls the dice enough times,” Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist and space ethics researcher at York University in Toronto, wrote in an email to WIRED.

The growth in private space travel will surely draw more scrutiny of how the missions are designed and who gets to fly. Proctor, for one, would like to continue expanding access to more people. “We need to think about ‘JEDI’ space—a just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive space for all humanity. Because we’re on Starship Earth and we want to bring everyone along with us,” she said on Tuesday at a pre-launch briefing.

Isaacman summed up their feelings during their on-orbit update: “We’re really proud to share this experience with everyone. We know how fortunate we are to be up here.”

Space tourism will likely remain expensive for a while, but decreasing launch costs will enable more people to fly in space, following in the Inspiration4 crew’s footsteps, said Benji Reed, SpaceX's human spaceflight chief, during a post-splashdown media call. “I think today is a great day for commercial space travel,” he said. “I believe this will be looked at as the first mission that opened up the second space age, where space becomes much more accessible to average men and women across the world.”

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