By Steve Gorman 5 minute read
Sept 18 (Reuters) - The quartet of newly minted citizen astronauts comprising the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission safely splashed down in the Atlantic off Florida's coast on Saturday, completing a three-day flight of the first all-civilian crew ever sent into Earth orbit.
The successful launch and return of the mission, the latest in a recent string of rocket-powered expeditions bankrolled by their billionaire passengers, marked another milestone in the fledgling industry of commercial astro-tourism, 60 years after the dawn of human spaceflight.
"Welcome to the second space age," Todd "Leif" Ericson, mission director for the Inspiration4 venture, told reporters on a conference call after the crew returned.
SpaceX, the private rocketry company founded by Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) electric automaker CEO Elon Musk, supplied the spacecraft, launched it, controlled its flight and handled the splashdown recovery operation.
The three-day mission ended as the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, parachuted into calm seas around 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT), shortly before sunset, following an automated reentry descent, as shown during a live SpaceX webcast on its YouTube channel.
Within an hour the four smiling crew members were seen emerging one by one from the capsule's side hatch after the vehicle, visibly scorched on its exterior, was hoisted from the ocean to the deck of a SpaceX recovery vessel.
Each of the four stood on the deck for a few moments in front of the capsule to wave and give thumbs-up before being escorted to a medical station on board for checkups at sea. Afterward they were flown by helicopter back to Cape Canaveral for reunions with loved ones.
The return from orbit followed a plunge through Earth's atmosphere generating frictional heat that sent temperatures surrounding the outside of the capsule soaring to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,900 degrees Celsius). The astronauts' flight suits, fitted to special ventilation systems, were designed to keep them cool if the cabin heated up.
Applause was heard from the SpaceX flight control center in suburban Los Angeles as the first parachutes were seen deploying, slowing the capsule's descent to about 15 miles per hour (25 kph) before splashdown, with another round of cheers as the craft hit the water.
The astronauts were cheered again as they stepped onto the deck of the recovery ship.