Wed, October 27, 2021

tech

All-amateur astronaut crew splashes down in Atlantic, another successful SpaceX mission

  • Home
  • »
  • tech
  • »
  • All-amateur astronaut crew splashes...

The quartet of amateur astronauts onboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean Saturday evening, completing the first all-civilian mission to orbit the Earth and setting the stage for more privately funded missions to come.

The crew of the Inspiration4 spent three days in orbit, circling the globe at 17,500 mph, before coming back to Earth in a flight designed to raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

The splashdown came at 7:07 p.m. Eastern time in calm waters, a SpaceX live stream of the event showed. The astronauts emerged from the capsule, which had been hoisted aboard a recovery ship, less than 50 minutes after the splashdown.

That brought a successful end to a historic flight funded by the mission commander, Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire entrepreneur and aviation enthusiast. Never before had a group of amateurs flown to orbit before. While NASA had overseen the development of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft that flew them to space, the agency was not directly involved in the mission.

"That was a heck of a ride for us, and we're just getting started," Isaacman said.

In a post-flight press conference Todd "Leif" Ericson, an Inspiration4 mission director, said, "Welcome to the second Space Age. … This is opening up a whole new chapter in spaceflight."

Before the flight, Elon Musk's SpaceX had flown three sets of professional, government-trained astronauts to the International Space Station, and the company has another mission for NASA scheduled for next month. But Musk founded SpaceX with the goal of opening space to the public and eventually building bases on the moon and Mars, and the Inspiration4 mission fit that goal. The company already has booked more private astronaut flights, including one tentatively scheduled for 2023 that would take a Japanese billionaire on a trip around the moon in the company's still-under development Starship spacecraft.

During its three days in orbit, the Inspiration4 crew - which included the mission pilot, Sian Proctor, 51, a college professor from Arizona; Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old father of two from Everett, Wash.; and Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old from Memphis who works as a physician assistant - virtually rang the bell of the New York Stock Exchange and spoke to patients at St. Jude, one of whom asked if there any cows on the "moooooon." They also spoke with actor Tom Cruise, who has been in talks to fly on a later SpaceX flight to the International Space Station, as well as U2's Bono.

In an interview with CBS News, Scott "Kidd" Poteet, SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission director, said there was a "minor waste management issue that the crew and mission control were required to troubleshoot. But honestly, this did not impact the mission."

At the news conference, Ericson said there was a problem with a fan. "As in most exploratory adventures like spaceflight there's always been one or two little hiccups along the way," he said. "But this was dealt with amazingly by the SpaceX team."

Benji Reed, SpaceX's senior director of human spaceflight, said, "We couldn't have asked for a more successful mission."

When planning the flight, Isaacman asked SpaceX about the feasibility of flying at an altitude even higher than the International Space Station, which orbits the Earth at about 240 miles above the planet's surface.

After SpaceX engineers deemed it safe, the Inspiration4 crew hit an altitude of about 367 miles, which is also higher than the Hubble Space Telescope and most space shuttle flights, and it set a record for SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. Views of Earth from that height reportedly were amazing, especially since SpaceX added a curved window at the top of the spacecraft so the travelers could spend time gazing at the stars and earth below, almost as if they were outside the craft.

At a press briefing before the flight, Isaacman said that he wanted the mission to push the envelope. "If we're going to go to the moon again, and we're going to go to Mars and beyond, we've got to get a little outside our comfort zone and take the next step in that direction," he said.

For the first day or so, there was limited information about what the crew was up to or how they were doing. Images and video were not made public.

On Friday, though, the mission's Twitter account posted a photo of the astronauts, all smiling and looking healthy. "The crew of #Inspiration4 had an incredible first day in space! They've completed more than 15 orbits around planet Earth since liftoff and made full use of the Dragon upola."

Then it posted the video of the crew speaking with patients at St. Jude. And on Friday afternoon, the crew hosted a live broadcast showing viewers around the capsule and giving them a sense of how they had been spending their time.

The lack of information was not a surprise, especially given that the crew is made up entirely of amateurs whom had never been to space before, said Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a think tank.

"I would not be surprised to find out that they had some 'adjustment' challenges with orbital spaceflight. Something like half of all people who have been in space have experienced initial bouts of nausea and space sickness as their body adjusts," he said.

"Also, keep in mind that these people are spending three days in very close proximity to each other and are probably having to figure out everything from sleeping and eating to using the toilet with very little privacy. I'm not surprised they're a bit reluctant to broadcast that to the world."

The crew spent a fair amount of time conducting experiments to measure the effect of weightlessness on the human body. Arceneaux, the crew's medical officer, took ultrasound readings on her fellow astronauts to measure how their bodies were reacting. Sembroski, an engineer at Lockheed Martin, played his ukulele. And Proctor, a professor at a community college, brought art supplies and drew a picture of their Dragon spacecraft.

Isaacman placed the first bet from space, a $4,000 wager that the Philadelphia Eagles would win the Super Bowl. MGM, which announced the bet, said it was contributing $25,000 to St. Jude.

The menu for the Inspiration4 crew was varied - pasta and meatballs, salami, bacon and cheddar, pasta Bolognese. For snacks, there were granola bars, peanut butter cups, apricots and M&Ms, which are good for shooting around in the weightless environment of space.

Proctor reportedly was especially fond of pizza. SpaceX founder Elon Musk apologized on Twitter that the Dragon capsule hadn't come equipped with a way to heat it up.

"Sorry it was cold!" he wrote. "Dragon will have a food warmer & free wifi next time."

Published : September 19, 2021