Inspiration4 astronauts beam after return from 3-day journey to orbit
By Kenneth Chang
After three days in orbit, a physician assistant, a community college professor, a data engineer and the billionaire who financed their trip arrived back on Earth, heralding a new era of space travel with a dramatic and successful Saturday evening landing in the Atlantic Ocean.
The mission, which is known as Inspiration4, splashed down off the Florida coast at 7:06 p.m. Saturday. Each step of the return unfolded on schedule, without problems.
“Welcome home to planet Earth,” Kris Young, space operations director at SpaceX, said to the crew as the capsule bobbed in the water. SpaceX, the rocket company started by Elon Musk, built the Falcon 9 rocket that launched the Inspiration4 mission as well as the Crew Dragon capsule where the astronauts spent the past three days
“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,” Young said.
“It was a heck of a ride for us,” Jared Isaacman, the 38-year-old billionaire who spearheaded Inspiration4, replied. “We’re just getting started.”
About an hour earlier, the capsule, named Resilience, fired its thrusters for 15 minutes to drop out of orbit. The parachutes deployed, slowing Resilience to about 15 mph as it hit the water. Within an hour, all four crew members walked out of the spacecraft, one at a time, each beaming with excitement as recovery crews assisted them.
It was the latest achievement in a year of spaceflight milestones.
A couple of months ago, two celebrity billionaires — Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and Richard Branson, leader of the empire of Virgin companies — went to the edge of space in vehicles built and operated by companies they had started, perhaps the beginning of a wave of wealthy space tourists making brief up-and-down jaunts off the planet.
Isaacman, who is not nearly as well known as Bezos and Branson, has gone much farther — to an altitude of 366 miles, higher than the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope, and an orbital speed of more than 17,000 mph.
His private spaceflight — the first to go into orbit without a professional astronaut aboard — also aimed to illustrate what a more accessible future in space could look like. His three crewmates started out as strangers chosen to embody positive traits of humanity: hope, prosperity and generosity.
By the time they launched, the four astronauts were a close-knit group: Isaacman, a high school dropout who founded Shift4 Payments, a company that processes payments for restaurants and other businesses; Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Center in Memphis, Tennessee; Sian Proctor, 51, a community college professor in Phoenix who became the first Black woman to serve as the pilot of a space mission; and Christopher Sembroski, 42, a data engineer who lives in western Washington.
The crew members participated in months of intense training, similar to what NASA astronauts undergo before launching on SpaceX rockets.
The four astronauts appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Netflix produced a documentary series following their training, and a final episode recounting their flight will air at the end of the month.
Liftoff, on Wednesday evening, was on time and flawless. After a couple of thruster burns, the capsule was in orbit 366 miles above Earth, the highest astronauts have gone since a mission to repair the Hubble telescope.
Then, at least for the general public, the mission went quiet for a day, with only a few bare-bones updates posted on Twitter. As part of a private mission not run by NASA, the crew had no obligation to make public appearances.
Their accounts on Twitter and Instagram, busily updated in recent weeks as they prepared for launch, stayed silent while in orbit.
The crew had a video call with patients at St. Jude. One of the children asked whether there were cows on the moon. “I hope there will be one day,” Proctor replied.
Upon landing, Inspiration4 had raised more than $160 million, including $100 million from Isaacman, for the hospital, which treats children at no cost to families and aims to discover cures for cancer and other diseases.
Late on Saturday, Musk of SpaceX said on Twitter that he would add a $50 million contribution, which would push the fundraising effort over its goal of $200 million.
The crew members also had a call with actor Tom Cruise. An online betting app also announced that Isaacman placed the first wagers from space.
On Friday afternoon, the crew members rang a closing bell they brought to orbit for the New York Stock Exchange and later, they presented a 10-minute live update on YouTube as they zoomed around the planet.
“We’re seeing the world every 90 minutes, that’s how fast we’re traveling around it, it’s pretty incredible,” Isaacman said during the broadcast from orbit.