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Elon Musk’s SpaceX recorded another first for the space tourism industry on Saturday, returning four private citizens from orbit in a splashdown landing off the coast of Florida.
The three-day trip was the first to carry a crew composed entirely of space tourists into orbit. After taking off on Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center, the fully automated mission circled in low-earth orbit before returning without a glitch at 7.06pm local time.
Jeff Bezos’s private space company, Blue Origin, was the first to take an all-civilian crew into space in July, when the Amazon founder was on board for what was also his company’s first launch to carry passengers.
However, that flight only took its four-person crew to the edge of space and lasted around 10 minutes. By comparison, the SpaceX flight, dubbed Inspiration4, circled the Earth at a maximum height of 367 miles, more than five times as high, and gave its passengers an extended experience of living in microgravity.
The mission underlined the scale of the lead that Musk’s SpaceX has achieved over its rivals in the private space industry. Its Crew Dragon spacecraft was developed to carry astronauts for Nasa to the International Space Station — a feat it first achieved last year. A rival project from Boeing has been mired in delays, and SpaceX remains the only private space company to have put astronauts into orbit.
Echoing recent trips to the edge of space by Bezos and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, the Inspiration4 trip was led by a billionaire businessman. But it seized the public imagination thanks to the inclusion of three passengers who did not have to pay for their seats, making the crew more representative of the wider population than any previous space mission.
Jared Isaacman, the founder of Shift4Payments, is estimated to have paid some $200m for the flight. Others he selected for the trip were Hayley Arceneaux, a physician’s assistant and a survivor of cancer in childhood; Chris Sembroski, a data engineer; and Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and community college professor. Proctor, who was designated pilot of the spacecraft, was the first black woman to hold that title.
The passengers were largely left to their own devices, though they also carried out some minor medical experiments on the effects of living at a relatively high altitude. They spent most of their time gazing at the Earth through a large glass dome that had been added to the craft’s nose in place of its usual docking mechanism, performing backflips and experimenting with personal pastimes like drawing and playing the ukulele.
The sight of ordinary citizens experiencing space travel reawakened one of the dreams of Nasa’s Space Shuttle programme, when the agency hoped to use non-astronauts to raise wider interest in and help communicate the experience of space. The plan ended in disaster in 1986 when the first of the passengers, teacher Christa McAuliffe, died in the Challenger accident.
Addressing the Inspiration4 crew after it splashed down at 7.06pm local time on Saturday, SpaceX operations director Kris Young said: “Your mission has shown the world that space is for all of us, and that everyday people can make extraordinary impacts in the world around them.”