SpaceX’s first space tourists have returned to Earth, splashing down inside the Crew Dragon spaceship

inspiration4 crew members in spacesuits side by side with image of parachutes lowering crew dragon spaceship into ocean splashdown
The Inspiration4 crew splashed down after a three-day spaceflight.

SpaceX and its four passengers have emerged victorious at the conclusion of the world’s first all-tourist flight to orbit.

The company’s Crew Dragon spaceship splashed down off the coast of Florida on Saturday at 7:06 p.m. ET, carrying four amateur spacefarers: billionaire businessman Jared Isaacman, geoscientist and science communicator Dr. Sian Proctor, physician-assistant Hayley Arceneaux, and engineer Chris Sembroski. None of them are professional astronauts.

“That was a heck of a ride for us, and we’re just getting started,” Isaacman said on the livestream after the splashdown.

The unlikely quartet came together after Isaacman chartered the flight from SpaceX and gave away three seats through a raffle and fund-raising partnership with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He called the mission Inspiration4.

The motley crew spent three days orbiting Earth aboard the Dragon capsule. They flew as high as 367 miles (590 kilometers) – farther from the planet than anyone has traveled since the Space Shuttle era. They took cognitive tests and scanned their organs with an ultrasound for scientific research. Sembroski played ukelele. Proctor made art. They all admired the views

On Saturday evening, the Crew Dragon fired its thrusters to push itself into a high-speed plummet to Earth. Tiles on the spaceship’s underbelly protected its passengers as friction superheated the atmosphere around it to a 3,500-degree-Fahrenheit plasma.

A few miles above Earth’s surface, parachutes ballooned from the capsule, likely giving the passengers a significant jolt as the spaceship slowed its fall.

The Crew Dragon dropped into the Atlantic Ocean and bobbed there like a toasted marshmallow, caked in soot from the fiery descent. It’s not the first time this particular capsule, named Resilience, has weathered such a fall: It’s the same ship that flew SpaceX’s first full astronaut crew to the International Space Station for NASA last year, then brought them home in May.

Recovery crews in boats swarmed the scene to pull the spaceship out of the water and help the travelers climb out.

SpaceX has opened the doors to private space tourism

Inspiration4 passengers sit inside crew dragon spaceship seats wearing white spacesuits
The Inspiration4 crew inside a model Crew Dragon spaceship. Left to right: Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman, and Hayley Arceneaux.

The Inspiration4 crew’s safe return is a major step in a new era of space tourism.

NASA didn’t run this mission; SpaceX did, to Isaacman’s specifications. He chose the length of the flight, the altitude, the crew, and their activities in orbit. He even contributed his own idea – a climb up Mount Rainier – to their nearly six-month training regimen.

SpaceX already has another tourist flight lined up for January. For that mission, called AX-1, the company Axiom Space chartered a Crew Dragon to take customers to the space station for eight days.

The AX-1 crew includes real-estate investor Larry Connor, Canadian investor Mark Pathy, and former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe. Axiom Space’s vice president, former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, will command the mission.

Ax1 crew members: Commander Michael López-Alegría, mission pilot Larry Connor, mission specialist Mark Pathy, mission specialist Eytan Stibbe
The Ax-1 crew members, left to right: Michael López-Alegría, Larry Connor, Mark Pathy, and Eytan Stibbe.

For now, SpaceX is the only entity that can launch people to orbit from the US. In October, it’s set to launch another astronaut crew for NASA – the third of six Crew Dragon flights the agency has purchased.

SpaceX developed this spaceship through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a competition that awarded funding to facilitate the development of commercial spacecraft.

The program also funded Boeing to develop a human-rated spaceship, but that vehicle has been bogged down in technical issues and delays. It still needs to complete an uncrewed test flight to the ISS before it can fly people.

inspiration4 rocket launch streak of light arcing through the sky
The Inspiration4 mission launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, September 15, 2021.

In the meantime, SpaceX ended the US’s nine-year hiatus in domestic human spaceflight in May 2020, when Crew Dragon flew two NASA astronauts to the ISS. NASA has also tapped SpaceX to land its next astronauts on the moon.

Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, aims to someday send the company’s vehicles all the way to Mars and build a settlement there.

Isaacman shares that vision.

“I’m a true believer,” Isaacman said in a February press conference. “I drank the Kool-Aid in terms of the grand ambition for humankind being a multi-planetary species. And I think that we all want to live in a Star Wars, Star Trek world where people are jumping in their spacecraft, and I know that that’s going to come. But there has to be that first step, which is what Inspiration4 represents.”

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