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Space Exploration

SpaceX landing: Inspiration crew of 'non-astronauts' splashes down in Atlantic Ocean off Florida

Story by Jennifer Sangalang John McCarthy

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Published on September 20, 2021 5:09 AM
On Sept. 15, Netflix livestreamed the launch as part of its docuseries, Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space
From liftoff to landing.

Days after four "non-astronauts" made history by launching into space, the SpaceX Inspiration4 crew landed Saturday night. The crew included tech billionaire Jared Isaacman, who served as mission commander; Hayley Arceneaux, a health care worker and cancer survivor; Dr. Sian Proctor, the fourth Black female astronaut; and Chris Sembroski, a data engineer who won his seat on board the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket. They launched at 8:02 p.m. Sept. 15 from Kennedy Space Center.

The group's space trip ended with a splashdown at about 7:07 p.m. EST in the Atlantic Ocean off Florida.

"Thanks so much, SpaceX," Isaacman said. "That was a heck of a ride for us and we're just getting started."

After Crew Dragon splashed down, it was hoisted onto the deck of SpaceX's Go Searcher support ship and hazards, like any leftover toxic hypergolic propellants, were cleared before the hatch was opened. After a brief checkup from a physician, the four-person crew climbed out of their scorched Crew Dragon capsule and prepped for a helicopter flight back to the mainland.

"On behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to planet Earth," Space Operations Director Kris Young told the crew after splashdown. "Your mission has shown the world that space is for all of us and that everyday people can make extraordinary impacts on the world around them. Thank you for sharing your leadership, hope, generosity, and prosperity, and congratulations on your incredible journey."

The Inspiration4 mission was paid for by Isaacman, who promoted the flight as a massive fundraising effort for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

Visuals to see:The best visuals from SpaceX's historic all-civilian mission to space Inspiration4 crew takes off:Space travel first: All-civilian mission to blast off

The goal is to raise $200 million, and Isaacman has pledged the first $100 million. Arceneaux, 29, was treated for childhood cancer at St. Jude and now works there as a physician assistant. She was chosen to represent the hospital on Inspiration4, and has served as the mission's medical officer...


Inspiration4 was a human spaceflight mission operated by SpaceX on behalf of Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman. The mission launched on 16 September 2021, at 00:02:56 UTC from the Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A, atop a Falcon 9 launch vehicle, placing the Dragon capsule into low Earth orbit and ended on 18 September 2021 at 23:06:49 UTC.

The mission had successfully aimed to complete the first orbital spaceflight with only private citizens aboard, as part of a charitable effort on behalf of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. The four crew members remained aboard Crew Dragon Resilience, which was outfitted with a cupola unique to this flight in place of a docking hatch.

The mission overlaps with the 55th anniversary of Gemini 11 in September 1966 which had an apogee of approximately 1,368 km , the highest Earth orbit ever reached on a crewed flight. The Inspiration4 flight is at an orbital altitude of approximately 585 km , the highest achieved since 1999 and 5th highest Earth orbital human spaceflight overall. It concluded with the first crewed splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean since Apollo 9.

Mission and crew

Inspiration4 was the first human spaceflight to orbit Earth with only private citizens on board. The mission promoted and raised money for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The crew and mission intended to raise upwards of US$200 million to expand St. Jude's childhood cancer research. Inspiration4 is led by Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman, an experienced pilot with qualification in military jets.

Isaacman procured the flight and its four seats from SpaceX, and donated two of the seats to St. Jude. Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at the hospital and a survivor of bone cancer, was selected by the hospital to board the flight. St. Jude raffled the second seat as part of a campaign to raise US$200 million for the hospital, termed St. Jude Mission: Inspired. An undisclosed person from Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University ultimately won the raffle, and decided for personal reasons to give the seat to his friend, U.S. Air Force veteran Christopher Sembroski, who was also one of 72,000 entrants in the raffle.


The Inspiration4 mission is using the Crew Dragon Resilience. This is the capsule's second flight, following its use for Crew-1. It also marked the 4th crewed flight of a Crew Dragon. The spacecraft's docking adapter, normally used to dock with the International Space Station, was replaced for this mission by a single monolithic multi-layer domed plexiglass window inspired by the Cupola module, allowing 360° views outside Resilience's nose.

The cupola is protected during launch and re-entry by the spacecraft's retractable nosecone, which also houses a custom camera enabling photography of the vehicle's interior and exterior during flight. The cupola is removable, so that Resilience can easily be reconfigured for missions in the future that require docking, following the conclusion of Inspiration4. Four Draco thrusters located on the spacecraft's nose necessitated the installation of four heat shield tiles on the cupola's exterior, which protect the plexiglass dome from engine exhaust during propulsive maneuvers.


Resilience launched on 16 September 2021 at 00:02:56 UTC , atop Falcon 9 Block 5 booster B1062 from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A. It was the third flight of this booster. The spacecraft was launched into an inclination of 51.6°. Following three days in orbit, the spacecraft splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. With Resilience in orbit, three Dragon spacecraft were simultaneously orbiting Earth, as Endeavour flies the Crew-2 mission and C208 flies the CRS-23 mission. Inspiration4 is the first crewed orbital spaceflight since STS-125 in 2009 to not visit a space station.

Each crew member was assigned an individual call sign for communications. Isaacman's call sign is 'Rook', while Proctor's is 'Leo', Arcenaux's is 'Nova', and Sembroski's is 'Hanks.'

As the second stage engine of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket cut off, Hayley Arceneaux reached into a pouch strapped to her leg and pulled out a plush doll. The toy, attached to a tether, began to float above Arceneaux's head and in doing so, fulfilled its purpose as the Inspiration4 mission's 'zero-g indicator'. Hanging in the air, it provided a visual signal to Arceneaux and her three crewmates that they were now in the microgravity environment of outer space, after reaching Earth orbit on 16 September 2021. For this particular mission, the crew selected a plush dog that represents the therapy dogs employed by St. Jude.

The mission plans to include ultrasounds, microbe samples and a variety of in-flight health experiments on the human bodies of ordinary citizens who have not been previously carefully screened and exhaustively trained as professional astronauts.

On 18 September 2021, at 23:06:49 UTC, it splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and was picked up by a recovery ship roughly forty minutes afterward. Arcenaux was first to exit the spacecraft, followed by Proctor, then Sembroski, and finally, Isaacman.

Orbital altitude

The flight plan aimed for an altitude of at least 575 km , and reached an altitude of 585 km , a height surpassing STS-125 in 2009 which had an apogee of 578 km , and the highest crewed spaceflight since STS-103 in 1999 with an apogee of 610 km . STS-31, the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, at 615 km was the highest of the Space Shuttle program and third highest ever behind only two missions of the Gemini Program, Gemini 10 and Gemini 11 in 1966 with apogees of 756 km and 1,368 km , respectively, making Inspiration4 the fifth highest Earth orbital crewed spaceflight in history - only 10 Apollo launches went beyond Earth's orbit. Achieving this altitude will pose different radiation levels than those found on the International Space Station. The investigation of the effects of spaceflight on human health and performance is done in collaboration with SpaceX, the Translational Research Institute for Space Health at Baylor College of Medicine, and investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Media coverage

Media coverage of the mission has been widely positive, noting its charitable focus, duration and altitude achieved. The mission is being documented as it happens in a five-episode docuseries entitled Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, released on the subscription streaming service Netflix in September 2021.

Entrepreneur Sian Proctor was selected by Shift4 Payments to board the flight, through a competition modeled after Shark Tank that rewarded the best business idea to make use of Shift4's commerce solutions. The panelists in the competition included Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Fast Company editor Stephanie Mehta, former NASA engineer Mark Rober, and Bar Rescue host Jon Taffer.

This was the first spacecraft to orbit with an all rookie crew since Shenzhou 7 in 2008. The last time NASA launched an all rookie crew was STS-2 in 1981 while flying the X-15 rocket plane).

All four crew members received commercial astronaut training by SpaceX, which encompassed lessons in orbital mechanics, operating in a microgravity environment, stress testing, emergency preparedness training, and mission simulations.