drone pilot industrySpaceX Live Updates: Inspiration4 Civilian Crew Returns to Earth

September 19, 2021by helo-10

ImageBefore they went to space, the Inspiration4 crew flew in military fighter jets to simulate the experience of high G forces.
Credit…John Kraus/Inspiration4

Say you’ve been following the adventure of Jared Isaacman and his crewmates on the Inspiration4 mission and now you suddenly have a hankering to follow in their footsteps to orbit. Maybe you’re even a billionaire who can easily afford the trip (Lucky you).

But what if you don’t have Mr. Isaacman’s fighter jet flying experience or desire to have your hands on the spacecraft controls? What if you can’t spare half a year for the kind of intensive training that the Inspiration4 crew underwent?

What if you just want to go for the ride and the views?

For now, orbital spaceflight is probably not for you.

“The long term vision is that spaceflight becomes airline-like,” said Benji Reed, the senior director for human spaceflight at SpaceX. “You buy a ticket and you go. But right now, the appropriate thing is that we still train people.”

Mr. Reed said the Inspiration4 crew’s training was essentially the same as what NASA astronauts get. The next private mission that SpaceX will fly, to the International Space Station, is being operated by a Houston-based company, Axiom Space. The Axiom mission will be commanded by an Axiom employee, Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut, but the three paying customers still have to learn about the operations of the SpaceX capsule and also the space station. That has already begun at Johnson Space Center, the Houston site where NASA’s astronauts work.

Space tourists who have flown to space on Russian Soyuz rockets have similarly also trained for months.

“As we look for ways to evolve toward that airline-like model,” Mr. Reed said, “we’ll look for how we can, you know, cut back on the amount of training that’s necessary to ensure safety.”

Credit…John Kraus/Inspiration4

Over more than half a century, less than 600 people have gone to orbit. That means that researchers who study how weightlessness and radiation affects the human body — knowledge that will be important to keep astronauts healthy during, for instance, a months-long trip to Mars — do not have a lot to work with.

The advent of private spaceflight is a boon to this field of study. Scientists will get more data covering a wider range of people.

“We’re going to learn some things that are very fundamental,” said Dorit Donoviel, executive director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, which is coordinating research during the Inspiration4 flight.

One of the passengers, Hayley Arceneaux, exemplifies those possibilities. At 29, she is younger than most space travelers, a cancer survivor and will be the first person in space with a prosthesis — metal rods that were implanted after a tumor was removed from her left leg.

During the flight, the Inspiration4 crew members took tests to gauge their mental performance, used an ultrasound instrument to track possible changes in their eyes and blood flow. That data could give clues to solve vision changes and space sickness experienced by some astronauts.

“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,” Ms. Arceneaux, the medical officer for the mission, said during a broadcast from the capsule on Friday.

Credit…SpaceX, via Associated Press

When astronauts return to Earth from space, they can experience a number of health and physical issues after they land — a result of living without gravity.

For flights that go as long as six months, astronauts can experience difficulties with balance, muscle weakness and cardiovascular deconditioning, according to NASA. Although the Inspiration4 flight was only three days long, the four astronauts returning will also receive a health screening.

It’s unclear exactly what that health screening might consist of. Health researchers working with Inspiration4 said the astronauts were to undertake some experiments that gauge their sense of balance — standing without swaying and moving between sitting and standing positions.

They will also perform a series of tests measuring their cognitive performance — the same ones they performed before liftoff and each during orbit.

A NASA medical requirements overview from the era when astronauts flew on the space shuttles provides an idea of what doctors look for in astronauts returning from shorter flights in space.

For flights that last less than 30 days, doctors screen the astronauts’ vital signs and look for neurological issues as well as problems with chest and lungs.

Headaches, dizziness, vertigo and feeling faint are among the neurological symptoms that doctors screen for in astronauts.

The functions of the eyes of returning astronauts are also checked, and they are asked to perform a series of tasks, including: touching their finger to their nose, rising from a chair, lifting a leg and hopping, walking in a straight line and then turning, and a heel-toe-walk.

If the doctors observe enough issues, they may decide that an astronaut needs to undergo additional testing.

Even before splashdown, the four astronauts have already gone through a series of health screenings while they were in space in hopes of furthering human exploration of space. They have been screened for heart activity, sleep, blood oxygen saturation, and blood.

SpaceX’s livestream has concluded, but updates on the mission and crew are expected later this hour.

After some initial health checks, the four astronauts are to take a helicopter back to land.

Last to leave was Jared Isaacman, 38, the commander. It was his idea for this mission and he financed it.

Chris Sembroski, 42, the mission specialist and ukulele player, gave triumphant gestures as he stepped out.

Dr. Proctor, 51, is a community college professor and she was the first Black woman to serve as the pilot of a space mission.

Sian Proctor is next to exit, her arms waving broadly to the recovery crew.

Hayley, 29, is a physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She served as the medical officer of the mission.

Hayley Arceneaux is the first to step out of the capsule, smling and giving two thumbs up.

Waves and smiles from the crew as they prepare to leave their space home for the last three days.

The hatch is open.

The Crew Dragon Resilience capsule has been lifted onto the recovery ship. Soon, crews will open it up and get a look at the Inspiration4 astronauts.

Credit…SpaceX, via Associated Press

Credit…Agence France-Presse, via Inspiration4/Afp Via Getty Images

When NASA owned and operated its own spacecraft, there was no chance it would rent out a Saturn 5 rocket or a space shuttle to someone else. But during the Obama administration, NASA decided to hire private companies to take its astronauts to the space station. One of the program’s secondary goals was to spur more commercial use of low-Earth orbit.

A decade later, SpaceX can offer trips to people who are not NASA astronauts, like the crew of Inspiration4.

“I’m very bullish on the tourism market and the tourism activity,” Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, said during a news conference in May. “I think more people that are going to fly, they’re going to want to do more things in space.”

The trip shows that a private citizen, at least someone with a couple hundred million dollars and a few months to spare, is now able to essentially rent a spacecraft to circle the planet.

In this case, it was Jared Isaacman, founder of Shift4 Payments, a company that processes payments for restaurants and other businesses. In deciding to spend a sizable slice of his fortune, Mr. Isaacman did not want to just bring along some friends. Instead, he opened opportunities to three people he did not know.

The result is a mission with a crew that is more representative of wider society — Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old Black community college professor; and, Christopher Sembroski, a 42-year-old data engineer.

With his crew of everypersons, Mr. Isaacman has achieved a goal of science fiction authors and space enthusiasts: to open space to everyone, not just professional astronauts and wealthy space tourists.

“The difference with this flight is that we have three very ordinary people who are basically on the flight, and they’re going to show us what it means to open this up,” said Timiebi Aganaba, a professor of space and society at Arizona State University.

A trip like Inspiration4 is still affordable to only to the richest of the rich. But it is no longer impossible.

SpaceX’s on-air commentators said it will be about an hour before the astronauts begin to exit the capsule.

Boats are pulling up alongside the floating capsule to make sure the site is safe before equipment on a larger ship lifts it out of the water.


The main chutes have deployed.

The drogue parachutes have deployed. The crew is feeling forces of 3 to 5 Gs as the spacecraft decelerates.

The radio silence is over and the astronauts are back in touch with mission control.

A thermal camera on SpaceX’s livestream just showed the capsule on its way back down from space.

Credit…Nasa/Bill Ingalls/Via Reuters

Returning from the free-fall environment of orbit to the normal forces of gravity on Earth is often disorienting for astronauts. A water landing adds the possibility of seasickness.

During a news conference in 2020, Doug Hurley, who flew NASA’s first journey in the Crew Dragon capsule said he had read some of the reports by the Skylab astronauts.

“There was some challenges post splashdown,” he said. “Folks didn’t feel well, and you know, that is the way it is with a water landing, even if you’re not deconditioned like we’re going to be.”

Mr. Hurley acknowledged that vomiting would not be unexpected.

“There are bags if you need them, and we’ll have those handy,” he said. “We’ll probably have some towels handy as well. And you know, if that needs to happen, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that that’s happened in a space vehicle.”

But not long after the splash down, he asked SpaceX’s mission controllers to tell flight surgeons monitoring their health that, “we’re doing pretty good so far.”

The crew will also be returning minutes before sunset on Saturday. SpaceX’s last astronaut splash down in May occurred in the dark, and it was the first night water landing by astronauts since 1968.

Steve Stich, manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, said that consistently calm nighttime weather at the splash down site, ample moonlight and additional factors made landing in the dark advantageous.

“When we weighed all those options, it just looked like this was the best time to come home,” he said on NASA TV earlier in the year.

Another advantage of a nighttime landing could be that fewer private boats are likely to be around. That was a problem in August 2020 when the first crewed SpaceX capsule splashed down. More than a dozen boats — one of them flying a Trump campaign flag — converged on the singed capsule, and a few went in for a closer look.

The episode raised concerns among NASA and SpaceX officials about security and safety procedures. If there had been an emergency, NASA officials said, the private boats might have impeded recovery efforts. They added that there could have been poisonous fumes from the capsule that posed a risk to the boaters.

With that concern in mind in May, the Coast Guard set up an 11.5-mile safety zone around the splashdown site to chase away any interlopers.

The spacecraft flies itself so it’s OK that mission control is out of touch and unable to send any commands for a few minutes.

It’ll be a few minutes of silence from the crew. The superheating of air as it rushes past the capsule disrupts radio transmissions.

While in orbit, the nose cone swings open on a hinge, which revealed the cupola glass dome that the astronauts were able to look out of. In the closed position, it protects the top of the capsule.

The deorbit burn is complete. The Crew Dragon is closing its nose cone now.

The capsule is coming back to Earth. The deorbit burn has sapped enough energy out of the Crew Dragon’s orbit that it cannot stay up in space any more.

Credit…EPA, via Shutterstock

The most dangerous part of spaceflight is leaving Earth — the launch.

The second most dangerous part is when a spacecraft has to decelerate and survive the fiery heat of re-entry while returning to Earth.

The Crew Dragon capsule containing the Inspiration4 crew is orbiting at more than 17,000 miles per hour. At 6:16 p.m. Eastern time, the capsule’s thrusters will begin firing for 10 minutes to drop it out of orbit.

As it falls, the capsule actually speeds up until it enters the thicker part of the atmosphere. Then the drag of air resistance acts as a brake. The compression of air against the heat shield at the bottom of the capsule generates temperatures as high as 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

If it comes in at too shallow an angle, it will bounce off the atmosphere back into space. If it re-enters too steeply, it could burn up. But capsules like Crew Dragon have for decades successfully navigated through re-entry. It is rocket science, but it is well-understood rocket science.

For the most part, the spacecraft’s computer handles everything. It tracks the spacecraft’s position, fires short thruster bursts to keep the capsule oriented with the heat shield to absorb the heat and deploys the parachutes, while the crew members sit back for the ride.

But what if something goes wrong?

Like NASA astronauts, the Inspiration4 crew trained how to handle contingencies, especially during a 30-hour session they spent in a Crew Dragon simulator. Outside the simulator, the SpaceX mission controllers communicated with the astronauts as if they were in space. A separate team at SpaceX imagined emergencies that could come up and then unleashed them during the simulation. Neither the crew members in the simulator nor the controllers outside were given advance knowledge of what was happening. They had to diagnose the problem and figure out a fix on the fly.

“It was totally like an Apollo 13 moment by the time we were done with 30 hours,” said Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who financed the trip and serves as the mission’s commander.

The simulation included crashes of the spacecraft computer and failures in the communication system, so that there were periods where the astronauts could not talk to mission control.

When the re-entry burn started, Mr. Isaacman said it became apparent that the capsule was off target. “It was way overshooting the target landing zone,” he said.

As it was programmed to do, the capsule gave the command to fire its thrusters to try to get back on the right track. But that meant the thrusters could have run out of propellant or failed from firing so long. The simulated mishaps were potentially cascading into a simulated fatal accident. Without the thrusters during the hottest part of re-entry, “you’ll tumble and it might be unsurvivable,” Mr. Issacman said.

Mission control was able to override the computer that was trying to push the capsule to its planned landing site, Mr. Isaacman said. That preserved propellant for passage through the atmosphere.

At the end of the simulation, splashdown was far from where it was supposed to be. “But we survived,” Mr. Isaacman said.

That scenario is not far-fetched. Something similar occurred in December 2019 during a test flight with no astronauts of Boeing’s Starliner capsule, the other spacecraft that is expected to take NASA crews to the International Space Station.

By the time that Boeing’s controllers on the ground figured out what was going on and sent corrective commands, the spacecraft had expended too much propellant and a planned docking at the space station was called off. (That and a series of other problems have prevented the Starliner from carrying astronauts to orbit, but it may get another chance in 2022.)

Boeing and NASA officials said that if astronauts had been aboard, they would have quickly realized what was wrong and shut down the thrusters, which could have allowed the mission to proceed to the space station.

That causes the capsule to start falling back into Earth’s atmosphere.

The 15-minute deorbit burn has begun.

Chris Sembroski, the mission specialist, was shown passing the time until landing by watching “Spaceballs” on a tablet attached to his spacesuit. May the schwartz be with them.

The astronauts should splash down somewhere off the coast of Florida at 7:06 p.m. Eastern time. But they’ve been preparing to land since last night.

SpaceX said that because the Crew Dragon capsule was in a higher orbit than usual for much of the trip, the spacecraft’s thrusters fired twice to bring it down to a lower altitude of about 226 miles on Friday night. That helped the capsule line up with its landing destination.

The first major step of the landing will begin at 6:11 p.m. Eastern time. That’s when the Crew Dragon will jettison its trunk, the bottom portion of the spacecraft that contains systems that are not needed for landing. The trunk will burn up in the atmosphere.

Five minutes later, at 6:16 p.m., the deorbit burn will begin, a firing of the thrusters that drops the capsule out of orbit and back into the atmosphere. This will last for 15 minutes.

Four minutes later, at 6:35, the spacecraft will close its nose cone, the location of the spacecraft’s cupola that gave the crew its views of Earth during their orbits.

At that point, it’s all automatic — the capsule should be hurtling through the atmosphere toward its destination until 7:02 p.m. when the drogues — a smaller set of parachutes — deploy to slow and stabilize the spacecraft’s descent. One minute later, the main, larger parachutes will deploy.

Three minutes later, the spacecraft will settle into the water, and the crew will begin procedures to be raised out of the ocean and taken back to land.

Credit…Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Inspiration4 mission is on its final orbit of planet Earth, lining up with its landing destination off Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Unlike the missions that SpaceX flies for NASA, Inspiration4 did not go to the space station. Instead, the Resilience capsule orbited Earth for three days at an altitude of up to 360 miles. That is about 150 miles higher than the International Space Station.

This flight path makes Inspiration4 more like some of NASA’s Mercury and Gemini missions during the 1960s that preceded the Apollo missions to the moon. It is also reminiscent of space shuttle flights before the construction of the space station. Some of those flights were the last times humans went this far from Earth.

Because Inspiration4 is not going to the space station, that allowed for a major modification to Resilience. SpaceX removed the docking port from the top of the capsule and installed a glass dome that will allow the crew to get a 360-degree view of space. It is the largest contiguous window ever to be flown in space. There was also a camera that for taking pictures of the crew members peering into space.

The Crew Dragon is a gumdrop-shaped capsule — an upgraded version of SpaceX’s original Dragon capsule, which has been used many times to carry cargo. It is roughly comparable in size to the Apollo capsule that took NASA astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and ’70s. Earlier NASA capsules — Mercury and Gemini — were considerably smaller.

The capsule has more interior space than a minivan, but less than a studio apartment. And there is a bathroom. As you can probably imagine, you and some of your friends may be able to pile into a space like that for a brief time, but much longer could become uncomfortable.

“It’s like an extended camping trip,” Mr. Sembroski said during a news conference on Tuesday. “You’re in a camper van with some of your closest friends for three days.”

The crew members were able to pull out sleeping bags and secure themselves in their flight seats, “so you don’t float into each other during the middle of the night,” Mr. Sembroski said.

“There will be a couple unique challenges maintaining privacy here and there,” he added. He said they had received good tips from NASA astronauts who previously traveled to space in the capsule.

“We’ll let you know more about how successful they were when we come back,” Mr. Sembroski said.

While food for spaceflight has made great advancements in quality since the 1960s, dining may not be a highlight of this orbital trip. In the Netflix documentary about Inspiration4, Ms. Arceneaux said during a taste test that she didn’t think she’d eat much in space. SpaceX has also not said who prepared the meals for this mission.

One of the planned meals was cold pizza. According to a SpaceX commentator, a member of the crew said during the meal, “Can’t believe we’re eating cold pizza in space. It’s extraordinary!”

But the crew didn’t just sleep and eat.

The Inspiration4 crew members will spend a fair amount of their time in orbit helping to advance medical research on how the human body reacts to being in space.

Other activities were more fun. Dr. Proctor, for instance, made some artwork, while Mr. Sembroski brought a ukulele to provide some live musical entertainment.

The crew also spoke to pediatric patients from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital about being in space on Thursday, and rang the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange from orbit on Friday. And they had conversations with other V.I.P.s from orbit, including the movie star Tom Cruise and Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, as well as members of their families.

SpaceX has provided more updates on Twitter: The capsule is entering its final orbit, and the weather forecast is favorable in the area where it will splash down.

Out of their flight suits, back into their space suits; SpaceX just tweeted that the crew of Inspiration4 have suited up ahead of their return to Earth.

Credit… Bill Ingalls/NASA, via EPA, via Shutterstock

While some spacecraft land on the ground, Crew Dragon, the SpaceX capsule that carried the Inspiration4 crew to orbit, does water landings. It’s much like the method used by NASA astronauts to return to Earth during the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury eras. The splashdowns occur off the coast of Florida, either in the Gulf of Mexico or in the Atlantic Ocean — SpaceX has selected the Atlantic for this mission. Two NASA missions returning crews from the International Space Station have splashed down safely in the past year, one of them at night.

Because the Inspiration4 mission is considerably higher than earlier Crew Dragon missions, it started dropping in altitude on Friday night, to about 225 miles from 360 miles, in order to get into better position for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Later on Saturday, shortly before preparing to land, the vehicle will jettison what SpaceX calls the “trunk” section of the spacecraft — the cylindrical compartment below the gumdrop-shaped capsule. The trunk will burn up in the atmosphere.

Then the capsule will begin firing its thrusters to drop out of orbit. Once it is low enough in Earth’s atmosphere, parachutes will deploy to gently lower the capsule into the sea.

The crew of Inspiration4 lifted off on time from the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday at 8:02 p.m. Eastern time. It was a flawless flight to orbit.




Inspiration4 Successfully Launches Into Orbit

The four crew members of the Inspiration4 mission, all civilians, reached orbit. The capsule they are riding in, named Resilience, will orbit Earth for three days at an altitude of up to 360 miles.

“It has been an absolute honor to prepare you for this historic flight. Today you are truly inspiring the world.” “Eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.” “Ignition. And liftoff. That’s the Inspiration4.” “Looks like a smooth ride for the crew.” [crowd cheering and clapping] “… [unclear] ready on the second stage engine for ignition. We’re passing through 3Gs acceleration, everything continues to look nominal.” “They are now in orbit around Earth [unclear].” [crowd cheering and clapping]

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The four crew members of the Inspiration4 mission, all civilians, reached orbit. The capsule they are riding in, named Resilience, will orbit Earth for three days at an altitude of up to 360 miles.CreditCredit…SpaceX

The evening sky was nearly devoid of clouds when the nine engines of the Falcon 9 rocket ignited, lifting the rocket and its passengers to space.

Once the flight launched, the crew’s enthusiasm was unbowed by the forces pressing down on them, as a video inside the capsule showed Sian Proctor, the flight’s pilot, and Christopher Sembroski, the mission specialist, fist-bumping.

The capsule then headed to an orbit some 360 miles up, higher than the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. Indeed, the Inspiration4 crew will be farther from Earth than anyone else since the space shuttles worked on the Hubble in the 1990s.

Credit…Bill Ingalls/NASA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After three days in orbit, the crew of the Inspiration4 mission — the first trip to orbit where no one aboard is a professional astronaut — is headed home to Earth.

The Crew Dragon capsule that is carrying the astronauts is scheduled to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida at 7:06 p.m. Eastern time. SpaceX will stream video of the landing and recovery of the capsule on their YouTube page.

In the event that weather prevented the astronauts from returning, the crew could circle the planet for an extended period of time. In response to a CNBC reporter’s question about the potential for a delayed return to Earth because of weather or other factors, Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who commands the mission and financed it, said on Tuesday they would be able to stay in space for “about a week.”

Credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Christopher Sembroski, 42, of Everett, Wash., works in data engineering for Lockheed Martin. During college, Mr. Sembroski worked as a counselor at Space Camp, an educational program in Huntsville, Ala., that offers children and families a taste of what life as an astronaut is like. He also volunteered for ProSpace, a nonprofit advocacy group that pushed to open space to more people.

Mr. Sembroski described himself as “that guy behind the scenes, that’s really helping other people accomplish their goals and to take center stage.”

He is the mission specialist for Inspiration4, and responsible for certain tasks during the mission.

Credit…Inspiration 4/Via Reuters

Sian Proctor, 51, is a community college professor from Tempe, Ariz.

Dr. Proctor, who is African American and holds a doctorate in science education, had come close to becoming an astronaut the old-fashioned way. She said that in 2009, she was among 47 finalists whom NASA selected from 3,500 applications. The space agency chose nine new astronauts that year. Dr. Proctor was not one of them.

She applied twice more and was not even among the finalists.

She still pursued her space dreams in other ways. In 2013, Dr. Proctor was one of six people who lived for four months in a small building on the side of a Hawaiian volcano, part of an effort financed by NASA to study the isolation and stresses of a long trip to Mars.

She is the pilot on the Inspiration4 mission, the first Black woman to serve as the pilot of a spacecraft.

Credit…Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Hayley Arceneaux, 29, is a physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis. Almost two decades ago, Ms. Arceneaux, who grew up in the small town of St. Francisville, La., was a patient at St. Jude when bone cancer was diagnosed in her left leg, just above the knee. Ms. Arceneaux went through chemotherapy, an operation to install prosthetic leg bones and long sessions of physical therapy.

“When I grow up, I want to be a nurse at St. Jude,” she said in a video shown at the ceremony in 2003. “I want to be a mentor to patients. When they come in, I’ll say, ‘I had that when I was little, and I’m doing good.’”

Last year, Ms. Arceneaux was hired by St. Jude. She works with children with leukemia and lymphoma.

Ms. Arceneaux is the youngest American ever to travel to orbit. She will also be the first person with a prosthetic body part to go to space. She is the health officer for the mission.

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