Four space tourists safely ended their trailblazing trip to orbit with a splashdown in the Atlantic off the Florida coast.
Their SpaceX capsule parachuted into the ocean on Saturday just before sunset, not far from where their chartered flight began three days earlier.
The all-amateur* crew was the first to circle the world without a professional astronaut.
The American billionaire who paid undisclosed* millions for the trip and his three guests wanted to show that ordinary people could blast into orbit by themselves, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk took them on as the company’s first rocket-riding tourists.
“Your mission has shown the world that space is for all of us,” SpaceX mission control radioed.
“It was a heck of a ride for us … just getting started,” replied trip sponsor Jared Isaacman, referring to the growing number of private flights on the horizon.
SpaceX’s fully automated Dragon capsule reached an unusually high altitude of 585 kilometres after Wednesday night’s lift-off. Surpassing* the International Space Station by 160 kilometres, the passengers soaked up views of Earth through a big bubble-shaped window added to the top of the capsule.
The four streaked back through the atmosphere early Saturday evening, the first space travellers to end their flight in the Atlantic since Apollo 9 in 1969. SpaceX’s two previous crew splashdowns — carrying astronauts for NASA — were in the Gulf of Mexico.
Within a few minutes, a pair of SpaceX boats pulled up alongside the bobbing capsule. When the capsule’s hatch was opened on the recovery ship, healthcare worker Hayley Arceneaux was the first one out, flashing a big smile and thumbs up.
All appeared well and happy.
Their families were waiting near the scene of Wednesday night’s launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
This time, NASA was little more than an encouraging bystander, its only contribution being the Kennedy launch pad once used for the Apollo moonshots and shuttle crews, but now leased by SpaceX.
Isaacman, 38, an entrepreneur* and accomplished pilot, aimed to raise US $200 million for St Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Donating $100 million himself, he held a lottery for one of the four seats. Late Saturday, Musk tweeted he was donating $50 million, putting them over the top.
For the last seat, Isaacman held a competition for the clients of his payment-processing business.
Joining him on the flight were Arceneaux, 29, a St. Jude physician* assistant who was herself treated at the hospital nearly two decades ago for bone cancer, plus contest winners Chris Sembroski, 42, a data engineer in Washington state, and Sian Proctor, 51, a community college educator, scientist and artist from Arizona.
“Best ride of my life!” Proctor tweeted a few hours after splashdown.
Strangers until March, the four spent six months training and preparing for potential emergencies during the flight — but there was no need to step in, officials said after their return.
During the trip dubbed Inspiration4, they had time to chat with St. Jude patients, conduct medical tests on themselves, ring the closing bell for the New York Stock Exchange and do some drawing and ukulele playing.
Arceneaux, the youngest American in space orbit and the first with a prosthesis*, assured her patients, “I was a little girl going through cancer treatment just like a lot of you, and if I can do this, you can do this.”
They also took calls from film star Tom Cruise, interested in his own SpaceX flight to the space station for filming, and the rock band U2′s lead singer Bono.
Even their space menu wasn’t typical: cold pizza and sandwiches, but also pasta Bolognese and Mediterranean lamb.
Before beginning descent, Sembroski was so calm that he was seen in the capsule watching the 1987 film Spaceballs on his tablet.
“What an amazing adventure!” he later said on social media.
Congratulations poured in, including from the Association of Space Explorers to its four newest members.
Aside from trouble with a toilet fan and a bad temperature sensor in an engine, the flight went exceedingly well, officials said. Some of the four passengers experienced motion sickness when they reached orbit — just as some astronauts do.
“It was a very clean mission from start to finish,” said Benji Reed, a SpaceX senior director.
Reed anticipates as many as six private flights a year for SpaceX, sandwiched between astronaut launches for NASA. Four SpaceX flights are already booked to carry paying customers to the space station, accompanied by former NASA astronauts. The first is targeted for early next year with three businessmen paying US $55 million apiece. Russia also plans to take up an actor and film director for filming next month and a Japanese tycoon in December.
Customers interested in quick space trips are turning to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. The two rode their own rockets to the fringes of space in July to spur ticket sales; their flights lasted 10 to 15 minutes.
The 60-year scorecard now stands at 591 people who have reached space or its edges — and is expected to skyrocket as space tourism heats up.
- amateur: unpaid, non-professional
- undisclosed: not known, not revealed or shared in public
- surpassing: exceeding, going past or beyond
- entrepreneur: something who sets up new businesses
- physician: a medical doctor
- prosthesis: an artificial body part, designed to restore function and appearance
- How long did the civilians spend in orbit?
- Where did the capsule splashdown?
- Who are the two global superstars who called the space tourists while they were in orbit?
- What altitude did the Dragon capsule reach?
- How much further past the International Space Station did they travel?
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1. The Cost of Space Travel
While these space missions offer everyday people an “out of this world” experience, it comes at a very hefty price tag. The businessman sponsoring this trip didn’t disclose how many millions it cost, but future space flights through SpaceX cost $55 million a seat. Work with a friend and discuss and write a list of whether this money is well spent or what it could be used for instead.
How we would spend $55 million dollars:
Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Personal and Social; Critical and Creative Thinking
“I was a little girl going through cancer treatment just like a lot of you, and if I can do this, you can do this.”
This was a quote from a medical assistant working at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital who was invited to go on this space mission. Why do you think it was important for her to go and represent the people? Would you say she is inspiring?
Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Personal and Social
The A-Z of space
There are so many discoveries constantly happening in relation to space – in fact, you will often hear scientists or researchers saying, “What do we really know?”
Well, let’s check your space knowledge. See if you can create an A-Z list about space.
You can be as creative as you like, and you might even need to use your imagination a little bit, but see how many words or phrases you can come up with starting with A, B, C D … all the way through to Z.
Compare your list with a partner and see if you can fill in any blanks between you.
Pick your favourite and draw a picture to help illustrate your word or phrase.