SpaceX’s first all-civilian crew returns to Earth, splashing down off Florida coast

SpaceX Crew Dragon Spacecraft — Courtesy: Image by Evgeniyqw from Shutterstock

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Just after three days in space, SpaceX’s first all-civilian crew returned back to Earth on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, coming down off the Florida coast to finish a historic mission.

“It’s been an amazing ride for everyone,” Inspiration4 mission director Kip O’Keefe said in a post-splashdown news conference. “We couldn’t ask for a more successful mission.”

The SpaceX Crew, Dragon Resilience, landed smoothly in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida at around 7:06 p.m. EDT, signifying the end of the Inspiration4 mission, a private spaceflight that sent four civilians into orbit earlier in the week.

The flight was part of a large fundraising effort for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The flight was purchased from SpaceX by billionaire Jared Isaacman in an effort to raise $200 million for childhood cancer research.

“Inspiration4, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome to planet Earth,” Kris Young, Space Operations Director at SpaceX mission control, told the crew after their successful splashdown. “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. Thank you for sharing your leadership, hope, generosity, and prosperity — and congratulations.”

“Thanks so much, SpaceX. It was a heck of a ride for us,” Isaacman replied. “We’re just getting started.”

Isaacman was joined by Hayley Arceneaux, a physician’s assistant and childhood cancer survivor; Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and community college professor; and Chris Sembroski, a data engineer. The four individuals made up the Inspiration4 crew and their flight marks the first time any spacecraft has carried humans into space without the presence of professional astronauts on board.

“This is an awesome mission, an awesome experience and we are so thankful to the entire crew — Jared and Chris, Sian and Hayley — for participating and making this really become a reality,” Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said in the conference.

“Overall the mission was great — beautiful weather from start to finish — and it was really a great experience for everybody on the ground, and Dragon performed very well,” he added.

While in orbit, the crew performed several experiments, including collecting data and samples that will help researchers thoroughly understand how microgravity affects the human body. 

During their flight, the highest altitude reached was 367 miles above the Earth, according to SpaceX. This is higher than both the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station. This will hopefully provide a better insight into space radiation and its effects on humans.

“It’s been really interesting to see how fluid shifts with this microgravity environment,” Arceneaux told viewers during an in-flight broadcast on Friday (Sept. 17). “And that’s something that scientists are looking at, so we’re happy to contribute with that.”

They have also been treated to incredible views of Earth below. Their spacecraft, Crew Dragon Resilience, received a very different modification after its last spaceflight. SpaceX engineers removed the craft’s docking adapter and installed a massive dome window, called a cupola. 

“We have been spending so much time in this cupola, and can see the entire perimeter of the Earth, which is such [an] incredible perspective,” Arceneaux said during the broadcast. “And I have to say, the views are out of this world.”

Prior to the mission’s launch, she was specifically excited about how her markers and paints worked in microgravity since fluids move much differently in space than they do on Earth.

Sembroski expanded upon that, saying “Because the mission aims to open up the final frontier to more people, especially people who are not professional astronauts, that the crew is bringing more of the humanities to space.”

And this isn’t limited to art projects, but also music. Sembroski brought along a custom ukulele that was made for the mission. He practiced playing the instrument and even played a few chords live on the broadcast. 

“One of the most fun parts of being in space is microgravity,” said Arceneaux, adding that the lack of gravity “has enabled us to do all kinds of cool flips and spins.”

Now that the Inspiration4 crew is back on earth, they will be thoroughly checked by medical staff and then flown on a helicopter to NASA’s space shuttle landing facilities. The Dragon capsule will travel through Port Canaveral to SpaceX’s facilities where it will be offloaded, inspected, and maybe readied to fly once again. 

Although we don’t know when the next mission will be, SpaceX is planning another civilian flight sometime in early 2022. That mission will be in partnership with Axiom Space and will carry a crew of four private citizens (including one former NASA astronaut) on an adventure to the International Space Station.

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