Update for 8:24 pm ET: SpaceX's private Inspiration4 mission safely splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast at 7:06 pm ET (2306 GMT), with the crew swiftly recovered. Read our wrap story.
After three days in space, SpaceX's first all-civilian crew will return to Earth tonight with a splashdown off the Florida coast to end a mission like no other in history.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience is scheduled to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida tonight (Sept. 18) to end the Inspiration4 mission, a private spaceflight financed by a billionaire that launched four civilians into orbit earlier this week. Splashdown is targeted for 7:06 p.m. EDT (2306 GMT).
"We know how fortunate we are to be up here," Inspiration4 commander Jared Isaacman said during a live video broadcast to Earth on Friday (Sept. 17). "We're giving all of our time right now to science research, and some ukulele playing, and trying to raise some good awareness for an important cause for us back on Earth."
Isaacman, a 37-year-old tech entrepreneur and founder of Shift4Payments, bought the Inspiration4 trip with SpaceX to fulfill a lifelong dream of flying in space. But he's also been using the flight to raise $200 million to support childhood cancer research and treatment for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. To that end, he donated the other three seats on the flight to raise funds as well as $100 million of his own funds to the cause.
One seat went to childhood cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux, 29, who now works as a physician's assistant at St. Jude. She's been the medical officer of the flight and is now the youngest American ever to fly in space, as well as the first with a prosthetic in her leg. The other two seats went to geoscientist Sian Proctor, 51, of Arizona (the mission's pilot) and data engineer Chris Sembroski, 42, (mission specialist and ukulele player), as part of online contests to raise funds.
"I just want you all to know that we're doing this for you," Arceneaux told St. Jude patients during the flight in a video call. "We are thinking about you so much, I wanted to tell you that I was a little girl going through cancer treatment, just like a lot of you. If I can do this, you can do this, and I'm so proud of each and every one of you."
The Inspiration4 astronauts launched into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket, lifting off from Pad 39A of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the same pad used for the Apollo moon missions, space shuttle flights and SpaceX's Crew Dragon trips carrying NASA astronauts. Both the Falcon 9 and its Crew Dragon Resilience had flown before. The private spaceflyers received months of training for the mission and wore the same type of sleek white flight suits used by professional astronauts.
Unlike past SpaceX crewed missions, all of which flew to the International Space Station for NASA, Inspiration4 flew on its own on a flight path that took it higher than the station and any other SpaceX Dragon flight to date, about 363 miles (585 kilometers) above Earth.
Since Inspiration4 was not headed to the International Space Station, SpaceX replaced its docking port at the nose with a giant dome window, a cupola that is the biggest single window ever to fly in space.
"We have been spending so much time in this cupola," Arceneaux said in Friday's live video. "We can put our heads in and fit multiple crewmembers and see the entire perimeter of Earth. And the views, I have to say, are out of this world."
The Inspiration4 crew also performed a series of experiments to study the human body in space and are carrying a number of items, like the ukulele Sembroski played and artwork made by Proctor, that will be auctioned off later to raise more finds for St. Jude.
They also rang the closing bell on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday and Isaacman placed the first bet from space (he picked the Philadelphia Eagles to win the next Super Bowl) as part of the mission. The civilian astronauts dined on cold pizza, pasta Bolognese, roasted edamame, Mediterranean lamb, Skittles, M&Ms and peanut butter cups among their other food choices.
While the mission has been a thrill for all four crewmembers, Isaacman stressed that he hopes their flight will inspire others to pursue their own dreams on Earth and in space.
"So big part of our mission here at Inspiration4 is to inspire what can be done here in space, and there's an awful lot of it and we got to get out and explore it," Isaacman said. "But also, we have our responsibilities that we need to take care of back on Earth and top on our list right now is conquering childhood cancer. That's why we're supporting St. Jude's."