“Thanks a lot SpaceX, it was a hell of a ride for us,” billionaire and mission commander Jared Isaacman was heard to say during the company’s livestream.
The Crew Dragon capsule, designed not to let the temperatures exceed 85º in the cabin, used its heat shield to protect the crew against the intense heat and the accumulation of plasma as they plunged back towards the ocean. During a Netflix documentary on the Inspiration4 mission, Musk described a re-entering capsule as “like a blazing meteor coming in.”
“And so it’s hard not to vaporize,” he added.
The spacecraft then deployed two sets of parachutes in rapid succession, further slowing its descent, before the capsule splashed off the coast of Florida. Salvage ships were waiting nearby to pull the capsule out of the water.
Despite the risks, a former NASA chief and career security officials have said the Crew Dragon is possibly the safest crewed vehicle ever flown. And the vehicle had already made two successful trips to space with professional astronauts on board before this group of space tourists made their multi-day ride.
Although they weren’t the first tourists to go to orbit, their mission, called Inspiration4, was remarkable because it did not involve a stay at the International Space Station under the tutelage of professional astronauts, as did previous missions involving space tourists. Instead, the four spaceflight novices have spent the last three days flying freely aboard their 13-foot-wide capsule at about 350 miles above sea level – 100 miles higher than where the ‘ISS, and higher than any human has flown in decades.
The Inspiration4 Twitter account also shared footage of Arceneaux speaking to his patients in St. Jude, and Isaacman rang the New York Stock Exchange closing bell via a 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 visual recordings from inside the crew capsule were shared on Friday afternoon, nearly two days after launch.
During previous SpaceX Crew Dragon missions – all of which were carried out for NASA and transported professional astronauts to the International Space Station – the public had more insight. The space agency and its dozens of communications staff have worked alongside SpaceX to share virtually every moment of the journey from launch to docking astronauts to the International Space Station.
But that mission left the public largely in the dark when it came to questions about the crew’s schedule and how they felt in orbit. Even though the development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft has been largely taxpayer funded, and SpaceX leases NASA facilities to support all of its missions, Inspiration4 is considered a private trade mission. This means that SpaceX customers only need to be as transparent as they want.
But favorable reviews of their experience could be crucial. SpaceX is hoping this mission will be the first in a long series, creating a new line of business for the company in which it uses Crew Dragon to conduct trade missions with tourists or private researchers rather than mere professional astronauts.
SpaceX already has contracts for five other private missions, as well as at least four additional missions under contract with NASA.