CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — After three days in space, SpaceX's first all-civilian crew returned to Earth tonight, splashing down off the Florida coast to end 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 gently landed in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida tonight (Sept. 18) at 7:06 p.m. EDT (2306 GMT) marking the end of the Inspiration4 mission, a private spaceflight that launched four civilians into orbit earlier this week.
The flight was part of a massive fundraising effort for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Jared Isaacman, billionaire and four of Shift4 Payments, purchased the flight from SpaceX in order 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."
Video: Splashdown! SpaceX Inspiration4 crew back on Earth
Live updates: SpaceX's Inspiration4 private all-civilian orbital mission
Isaacman is joined by Hayley Arceneaux, a physician's assistant and childhood cancer survivor; Chris Sembroski, a data engineer; and Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and community college professor. The four citizens make up the Inspiration4 crew and their flight marks the first time that a spacecraft carried humans into space without any 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 news 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 a host of medical experiments, collecting samples and data that will help researchers better understand how microgravity affects the human body.
During their flight, the crew traveled up to an altitude of 367 miles (590 km) above the Earth, according to SpaceX — higher than both the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. That will hopefully provide more 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."
"We've also been taking several swabs of different parts of our body to evaluate the microbiome and how that changes in these three days in space," she added. "I've also been giving a bunch of samples, blood samples, for the research teams as well as doing cognitive tests."
They've also been treated to epic views of the planet below. Their spacecraft, Crew Dragon Resilience, received a unique modification after its last spaceflight. Engineers at SpaceX removed the craft's docking adapter and in its place, installed a giant 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."
Proctor and Arceneaux demonstrated that multiple crew members can fit in the cupola at one time, and said the crew is spending as much time gazing upon the Earth as possible. Proctor showed off one of the drawings she's been working on in space, which is a depiction of their Dragon spacecraft launching into space and drawn with metallic markers.
Prior to launch, she was especially thrilled to see how her paints and markers worked in microgravity, since fluids behave much differently in space than they do here 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 that means not only art projects, but also music. Sembroski brought a custom ukulele with him that was made for the mission. He said that he's enjoyed trying to practice playing the instrument in microgravity and even played a few chords 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."
Her crewmates said that she's been doing flips a lot while in microgravity. They also took time to really show off the zero-g indicator that was selected for the mission. Usually some sort of stuffed animal, selected by the crew, is used to show when the crew has reached space.
For this particular mission, the crew selected a plush dog that represents the therapy dogs employed by St. Jude.
"So this was the first thing that we got to throw out whenever we made it to space to show that we really were in a zero gravity environment," Arceneaux said as she let it float around the cabin. "This little guy who's very cute, he represents the St. Jude therapy dog."
She went on to say how St. Jude has two different golden retriever dogs that are able to sit with the kids when they're scared and even go through the MRI machine or the CAT scan machine before the kids do to show them that it's not so scary.
"So we wanted to bring one of these really sweet dogs to space," Arceneaux said. "But what's really cool is these dogs are on sale, and all the money from the sales of our zero-g indicators are going to go to St. Jude."
The crew was also able to phone patients at St. Jude from space, chatting with the kids and answering their questions.
Now that the crew is back on Earth, they will be checked out by medical staff and then flown via helicopter to NASA's space shuttle landing facilities. Their Dragon capsule will travel through Port Canaveral to SpaceX's facilities where it will be offloaded, inspected and potentially readied to fly again. Although at this point we don't know what its next mission will be.
SpaceX is planning another civilian flight sometime early next year. That mission is a partnership with Axiom Space that will ferry a crew of four private citizens (including one former NASA astronaut) on a journey to the International Space Station.
Editor's note: This story was updated with information from SpaceX's post-splashdown news conference.
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