Reporting on Spaceflight
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.
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.
Reporting on Spaceflight
That causes the capsule to start falling back into Earth’s atmosphere.
Reporting on Spaceflight
The 15-minute deorbit burn has begun.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
Dragon will perform two burns tonight to reduce the spacecraft’s altitude to ~365km and line up the ground track with the landing site
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 17, 2021
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
He grew up in New Jersey and in ninth grade started a company offering help to befuddled computer users. One of his clients was a payment processing company, and its chief executive offered him a job. Mr. Isaacman took the job and dropped out of high school at age 16. He obtained a general educational development certificate, or G.E.D.
After half a year, Mr. Isaacman figured out a new way to handle payment processing, and in 1999 he founded his own company in his parents’ basement. That evolved into Shift4 Payments, which went public in June 2020.
Mr. Isaacman started flying as a hobby, learning to pilot more and more advanced aircraft including military fighter jets. In 2012, he started a second company called Draken International, which owns fighter jets and provides training for pilots in the United States military. He has since sold Draken but still flies fighter jets for fun.
Last year, Mr. Isaacman wanted to invest in SpaceX, which remains a privately held company, but missed the latest investment offering by the company. Mr. Isaacman tried to convince SpaceX officials of his enthusiasm by telling them he wanted to buy a trip to orbit someday. That led to conversations that resulted in Mr. Isaacman undertaking the Inspiration4 mission. He is serving as the mission’s commander.