Inspiration4 Crew Returns to Earth After Historic Flight
By CBS News/William Harwood
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The Inspiration4 crew wrapped up the first all-civilian privately-funded trip to orbit and plunged back to Earth Saturday, dropping out of a hazy sky for a picture-perfect sunset splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Canaveral.
Suspended under four large parachutes, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule settled to a gentle, on-target water landing at 7:06 p.m. EDT to wrap up a 71-hour three-minute voyage.
"Inspiration4, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to planet Earth," SpaceX radioed. "Your mission has shown the world that space is for all of us and that everyday people can make extraordinary impacts on the world around them. Thank you for sharing your leadership, hope, generosity and prosperity. Congratulations."
Replied commander Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who chartered the flight: "That was a heck of a ride for us. We're just getting started."
Recovery crews waiting nearby reached the spacecraft within minutes to carry out a quick inspection and to connect cables allowing the capsule to be hauled aboard SpaceX's "Go Searcher" support ship.
Flight surgeons and company technicians were standing by on the ship to open the Crew Dragon's hatch to help the four passengers out of the capsule for initial medical checks and phone calls to friends and family on shore.
A SpaceX commentator narrating a company webcast said the crew was in good shape after the voyage — the first privately-funded civilian crew to orbit Earth in space history.
"They'll slide the capsule right up against the deck and we'll open the hatch," said Inspiration4 mission director Scott "Kidd" Poteet, a former Air Force Thunderbirds pilot. "The first one in is the doc to do his initial assessment. ... The priority is to make sure they're healthy."
Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Chris Sembroski and Hayley Arceneaux planned to board a helicopter for the short flight back to the Kennedy Space Center's 3-mile-long shuttle runway for reunions and post-flight celebration.
"They're going to get showered up, change and prepare to jump on the helo for the flight back," Poteet said. "The families are going to be right there to welcome them home."
Isaacman and his fellow crew members began their final day in orbit at 12:30 p.m. A few hours later, they donned their futuristic pressure suits and strapped in while flight controllers at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, rigged the ship for entry.
Moments before a critical rocket firing to drop the ship out of orbit, television views from inside the Crew Dragon showed Sembroski watching a movie on a computer tablet attached to the left leg of his pressure suit.In any case, the Crew Dragon's flight computer fired the capsule's Draco braking rockets for 15 minutes starting at 6:17 p.m. EDT, slowing the capsule enough to drop the far side of the orbit into the atmosphere for a southwest-to-northeast descent across Central America and the Florida peninsula.
After a fiery plunge back into the dense lower atmosphere, the capsule streaked high above Florida's west coast south of Sarasota and quickly shot across the state toward the Kennedy Space Center, rattling windows with sonic booms as it crossed above the east coast and out over the Atlantic Ocean.
A few minutes later, small drogue chutes deployed to stabilize the capsule followed by the four main parachutes, which inflated in stages and quickly slowed the craft for the final few minutes of the mission.
Isaacman, the CEO of a payment processing company and an accomplished jet pilot, chartered the flight as part of a personal drive to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. He kicked in the first $100 million himself and set up a donations program that has pulled in $50 million to date.
Arceneaux is a childhood cancer survivor who was treated at St. Jude and is now a physician assistant at the famed research center. Proctor, a one-time astronaut finalist, educator and artist, and Sembroski, an aerospace engineer, were selected as part of an on-line contest.
All four spent six months training for the Inspiration4 flight and all four appeared to be having the time of their lives in orbit as seen in the few glimpses seen by the public during the mission. A more extensive look at the flight will be presented as part of an on-going Netflix documentary.
"They were rock stars from the very beginning," Poteet said. "And that's a testament to SpaceX and the training that they went through over the last six-plus months, in addition to some of the additional training that we came up with to make sure they're fully prepared."
Isaacman, he said, was committed to "a 100% successful mission, and thus far it has been."
The mission began at 8:02 p.m. Wednesday when the crew's Falcon 9 rocket roared to life and shot away from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The booster propelled the Crew Dragon capsule into a 365-mile-high orbit some 100 miles higher than the International Space Station.
During their three days in space, Isaacman and company collected medical data to chart their adaptation to weightlessness, chatted with patients at St. Jude, gave the public a televised tour of their capsule and showed off the hemispheric dome SpaceX installed to provide spectacular 360-degree views of Earth and space.
The crew also talked by radio with friends and family, including SpaceX founder Elon Musk, company president Gwynne Shotwell, actor Tom Cruise and rock star Bono of U2.
"Tom was obviously super excited, offering us a viewing of 'Top Gun 2,'" Poteet said. "Us being aviation enthusiasts, we're pretty excited about that one, for sure."
While about half the people who fly in space suffer from space motion sickness during their first few days in weightlessness, the Inspiration4 crew appeared cheerful and healthy in the video clips downlinked during the mission.
"They've been absolute rock stars, and we couldn't be prouder," Poteet said.
Asked if the crew had to deal with any technical problems during the flight, he said there were a few "minor challenges" but nothing of any significance.
"For example, there was a minor waste management issue that the crew and mission control were required to troubleshoot," he said, not adding any details. "But honestly, this did not impact the mission. ... It was a huge success. To quote SpaceX, it was one of the most successful missions thus far that they've been able to execute. So overall, we couldn't be happier."
Isaacman, Proctor, Sembroski and Arceneaux became the 588th, 589th, 590th and 591st individuals to fly in space, pushing the U.S. total to 311 men and 56 women. They were the 25th through 28th people to fly in space on a purely commercial basis and the first privately-funded, non-government crew to make it into orbit.
This article was originally published on CBSNews.com on Sept. 18, 2021.