Crew Dragon splashdown
The Crew Dragon spacecraft Resilience splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast Sept. 18 at the end of the Inspiration4 mission. Credit: Inspiration4

Updated 10:25 a.m. Eastern Sept. 19 with Musk donation.

KIHEI, Hawaii — SpaceX’s first private crewed mission ended with the splashdown of the Crew Dragon spacecraft off the Florida coast Sept. 18.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft Resilience splashed down off the coast from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 7:06 p.m. Eastern. The splashdown took place 50 minutes after the spacecraft started its deorbit burn.

“Inspiration4, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to planet Earth,” Kris Young, SpaceX space operations director, said from SpaceX mission control moments after splashdown. “Your mission has shown that space is for all of us, and everyday people can make extraordinary impacts on the world around them.”

“Thanks so much, SpaceX. It was a heck of a ride for us,” Jared Isaacman, the commander, responded. “Things are just getting started.”

The splashdown wrapped up the Inspiration4 mission 71 hours after its Sept. 15 launch from the Kennedy Space Center. Isaacman, a billionaire, paid for the flight, intending to use it as a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Accompanying Isaacman on the mission were Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at and former patient of St. Jude; Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and artist who won a competition affiliated with Isaacman’s online payments company, Shift4 Payments; and Chris Sembroski, selected through a raffle contest to raise money for St. Jude.

In a 10-minute live video session Sept. 17, the crew appeared to be enjoying their time in orbit. They discussed activities ranging from biomedical research to taking pictures in a cupola installed in the nose of the spacecraft.

In a call with reporters about an hour after splashdown, SpaceX and Inspiration4 officials said the mission went very well. “It was a very clean mission from start to finish,” said Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX. He described a problem with a fan in the spacecraft’s waste management system, but that the crew was “happy and healthy.” A temperature sensor in a Draco thruster malfunctioned, but he said both the sensor and the thruster itself were redundant.

“The crew was able to complete the full-duration mission without any issues,” said Todd Ericson, Inspiration4 mission director. “There’s always one or two little hiccups along the way, but these were dealt with amazingly by the SpaceX team.”

Inspiration4 has raised nearly $30 million for St. Jude since the launch, with about $60 million raised according to the project’s website. However, that is still far short of the goal of $100 million when Isaacman and SpaceX announced the mission in February. Inspiration4 said in a Sept. 17 statement that it hopes to raise $200 million, including $100 million Isaacman already donated, by February 2022.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted late Sept. 18 that he would donate $50 million, which would be more than enough to reach the project’s goal. That donation isn’t included in the figures on the Inspiration4 website as of early Sept. 19.

Inspiration4 was SpaceX’s fourth crewed flight, but the first not part of NASA’s commercial crew program. The splashdown is the third for a crewed Crew Dragon spacecraft; the Crew-2 spacecraft that launched in April is still docked to the International Space Station and scheduled to return in November.

The next Crew Dragon mission for NASA, Crew-3, is scheduled for launch Oct. 31 carrying astronauts for NASA and the European Space Agency. The next private Crew Dragon mission is the Ax-1 mission for Axiom Space, which will launch no earlier than January 2022 and spend a week at the ISS.

Reed said in the call there is growing demand for commercial Crew Dragon flights. “The amount of people who are approaching us through our sales and marketing portals has actually increased significantly,” he said, projecting that SpaceX could support five or six crewed missions a year between NASA and commercial customers. “If the demand is there, then we’ll want to look at what we can do to continue to grow that.”

“This mission will be looked at as the first mission of the opening of the second space age, where space travel became much more accessible to average men and women across the world,” said Ericson.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...