September 18 (Reuters) – The quartet of citizen astronauts making up the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission began their descent from space en route to an Atlantic water landing on Saturday to complete a three-day flight of the first all-civilian crew ever launched in Earth orbit.
In preparation for their return to Earth, the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle carried out two rocket thruster “burns” on Friday to lower its altitude and align the capsule’s trajectory with the target landing zone.
Early Saturday, the crew donned their helmeted flight suits and made final cabin preparations as the spacecraft continued its autonomous sequence of return maneuvers, including separating the lower auxiliary trunk from the vehicle to expose the shield. thermal of the capsule.
After a final 15-minute firing of its forward thrusters for a “desorbit burn”, the capsule was to reenter the atmosphere for its dive into the ocean below, during which crew communications will be lost for approximately. seven minutes.
The Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, is expected to parachute into the sea around 7 p.m. EST, shortly before sunset, according to SpaceX, the private rocket company founded by the CEO of electric car maker Tesla Inc (TSLA .O), Elon Musk.
Recovery vessels will then be sent to the landing site to recover the crew and the Dragon capsule.
SpaceX supplied the spacecraft, launched it from Florida, and flew it from the company’s headquarters on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The company featured live coverage of return flight activities via webcast on its YouTube channel.
A brief camera shot from the cabin showed the four crew members strapped to their seats side by side.
The Inspiration4 team took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on Wednesday on top of one of SpaceX’s reusable double-stage Falcon 9 rockets.
In less than three hours, the crew’s capsule had reached a cruising orbital altitude of just over 363 miles (585 km) – higher than the International Space Station or the Hubble Space Telescope, and farthest than ‘a human has flown from Earth since the end of NASA’s Apollo lunar program in 1972..
It also marked the first flight of Musk’s new space tourism business and a leap forward over competitors also offering rocket rides to well-heeled customers willing to pay a small fortune to experience the exhilaration of spaceflight. and earn amateur astronaut wings.
The Inspiration4 team was led by its wealthy benefactor, Jared Isaacman, managing director of e-commerce company Shift4 Payments Inc (FOUR.N), who took on the role of mission “commander”.
He had paid an undisclosed but apparently huge sum – estimated by Time magazine to be around $ 200 million – to his billionaire colleague Musk for the four seats aboard the Crew Dragon.
Isaacman was joined by three less wealthy teammates he had selected – geoscientist and former NASA astronaut candidate Sian Proctor, 51, physician assistant and childhood bone cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux, 29 , and aerospace data engineer and Air Force veteran Chris Sembroski, 42.
Isaacman designed the flight primarily to raise awareness and donate for one of his favorite causes, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a major pediatric cancer center in Memphis, Tennessee, where Arceneaux was a patient and now works.
The Inspiration4 crew played no role in piloting the spacecraft, which was operated by ground flight crews and on-board guidance systems, although Isaacman and Proctor are both licensed pilots.
SpaceX has already ranked as the most established player in the burgeoning constellation of commercial rocket companies, having launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the NASA space station.
Two rival operators, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc (SPCE.N) and Blue Origin, have launched their own astrotourism services in recent months, with their respective founding executives, billionaires Richard Branson and founder of Amazon.com (AMZN. O) Jeff Bezos, everyone leaving for the ride.
These suborbital flights, lasting a few minutes, were short leaps from the three days of Inspiration4 in orbit.
Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio
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