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SpaceX capsule returns four civilians from orbit, capping off first tourism mission

“Thanks so much SpaceX, it was a heck of a ride for us,” billionaire and mission commander Jared Isaacman could be heard saying over the company’s livestream.

The tourists were shown watching movies and occasionally heard responding to SpaceX’s mission control inside their fully autonomous spacecraft before it began the nail-biting process of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. After traveling at more than 17,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft used Earth’s own thick blanket of air to slow itself down, with the outside of the craft reaching temperatures up to 3,500º Fahrenheit in the process.

The Crew Dragon capsule, which is designed not to allow temperatures to go past 85º in the cabin, used its heat shield to protect the crew against the intense heat and buildup of plasma as it plunged back toward the ocean. During a Netflix documentary about the Inspiration4 mission, Musk described a capsule going through reentry as “like a blazing meteor coming in.”

“And so it’s hard not to get vaporized,” he added.

The spacecraft then deployed two sets of parachutes in quick succession, slowing its descent further, before the capsule splashed down off the coast of Florida. Recovery ships were waiting nearby to haul the capsule out of the water.

Despite the risks, a former NASA chief and career safety officials have said the Crew Dragon is likely the safest crewed vehicle ever flown. And the vehicle had already completed two successful trips to space with professional astronauts on board before this group of space tourists took their multi-day joyride.

The passengers included the 38-year-old Isaacman, who personally financed and arranged the trip with SpaceX and its CEO, Elon Musk; Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a childhood cancer survivor and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital physician assistant; Sian Procotor, 51, a geologist and community college teacher with a PhD; and Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old Lockheed Martin employee and lifelong space fan who claimed his seat through an online raffle. Isaacman has billed the mission as a St. Jude fundraiser, and it has so far has netted $154 million of its $200 million goal.

Though they’re not the first tourists to travel to orbit, their mission, called Inspiration4, was notable because it did not involve a stay at the International Space Station under the tutelage of professional astronauts, as previous missions involving space tourists have. Rather, the four spaceflight novices have spent the past three days free-flying aboard their 13-foot-wide capsule on their own at about a 350 mile altitude — 100 miles higher than where the ISS is, and higher than any human has flown in decades.

SpaceX launches first all-tourist crew into orbit
During their stay in space, the civilians on board said they’d conduct a bit of scientific research focused on how their bodies respond to being in space, take time to chat with their families, gaze out a large dome-shaped window called the “cupola,” and listen to music. During a livestream shared with the public on Friday, Proctor also showed off some artwork she did during her stay with metallic markers and Sembroski strummed a ukelele that will be auctioned off as part of the St. Jude fundraiser.

The Inspiration4 Twitter account also shared footage of Arceneaux speaking to her St. Jude patients, and Isaacman rang the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange via satellite feed on Friday afternoon.

Other than that, few updates were shared with the public while the crew was in orbit. The first live audio or visuals from inside the crew capsule were shared Friday afternoon, nearly two days after they launched.

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During previous SpaceX Crew Dragon missions — all of which have been flown for NASA and carried professional astronauts to the International Space Station -— the public has had more insight. The space agency and its dozens of communications personnel have worked alongside SpaceX to share practically every moment of the journey from launch until the astronauts dock with the International Space Station.

But this mission left the public largely in the dark when it came to questions about the crew’s schedule and how they were feeling while in orbit. Even though development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft was largely funded by taxpayers and SpaceX rents NASA facilities to support all its missions, Inspiration4 is considered a private, commercial mission. That means SpaceX’s customers only have to be as transparent as they want to be.

There could be several reasons why the space tourists were publicity shy during their trip. It is possible, for example, that the crew wasn’t feeling all that great after first reaching orbit. According to a NASA research paper, “many astronauts report motion sickness symptoms just after arrival in space and again just after return to Earth” and getting a restful night’s sleep in orbit was “also a serious challenge for many crew members aboard shuttle missions.” It’s also possible the four novice space explorers wanted their privacy or simply to enjoy the experience without having to stop to talk about it.

But favorable reviews of their experience could be crucial. SpaceX hopes that this mission will be the first of many like it, building up a new line of business for the company in which it uses Crew Dragon to fly commercial missions with tourists or private researchers rather than just professional astronauts.

SpaceX already has contracts for five other private missions, as well as at least four additional NASA-contracted missions.

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