Space Sunday: Inspiration4 and Chinese flights

A time-lapse image of the Inspiration4 launch captured from Cape Canaveral Space Force Centre south of Kennedy Space Centre, tracing the rocket’s curved ascent to orbit. Credit: unknown

The SpaceX Inspiration4 has completed the first non-professional astronaut flight into space, carrying aloft four people aboard the Crew Dragon Resilience, The second completed Crew Dragon vehicle, Resilience was used in the first operational SpaceX crew mission – Crew-1 – that flew to the International Space Station (ISS) in November 2020.

Intended as a fund-raising effort in support of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with the goal of raising US $200 million to expand the hospital’s childhood cancer research programme; and along the way the flight set some significant milestones, including being:

  • The first flight crewed by civilians who had not been put through the full spectrum of astronaut selection and training routines.
  • The first “all rookie” crew (none having flown into space previously) since China’s Shenzhou 7 in 2008, and the first NASA all-rookie crew since STS-2 in 1981 (Joe Engle, the commander of that flight had earned his USAF astronaut wings flying the X-15, but the mission marked his first trip into orbit, and so considered a NASA rookie).
  • The highest-orbiting US crewed space mission since STS-125 in 2009, reaching an orbital apogee of 585 km (or around 185 km higher than the ISS), and the fifth highest crewed mission to orbit the Earth overall (the highest apogee of 1,368 km being reached by Gemini 11 in 1966 – and Inspiration4 actually overlapped the 55th anniversary of that mission).
  • The first orbital flight of a crewed US vehicle not to dock with the ISS since STS-125.
  • The first time two Crew Dragon vehicles have orbited the Earth simultaneously, with the Endeavour currently docked at the ISS as part of the Crew-2 mission, and the first time three Dragon vehicles have been in space at the same time, with the uncrewed Dragon CRS-23 mission also docked at the ISS.
  • The first time Crew Dragon has operated in “free flight” with a crew without any docking with the ISS.
  • The largest contiguous window ever flown in space (the cupola, protected during launch and re-entry by the capsule’s hinged nose cone.

The mission also helped set a new record for the most people orbiting the Earth at the same time, with 14 split between this mission (4), the Chinese Shenzhou-12 mission and the ISS (7) – although the Chinese crew were o their way back to Earth when Inspiration4 launched, landing on September 17th.

An external camera on the hull of Resilience captures an image of the exposed cupola. Credit: Inspiration4 / SpaceX

The mission launched at :02:56 UTC on Thursday, September 16th, 2021 (20:02:56 EDT, Wednesday, September, 15th, 2021 in the US), atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster making its third launch from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida. Ten minutes after lift-off, the booster was back on Earth, having successfully seen Resilience on its way to orbit (still attached to the rocket’s upper stage), before performing a “boost back” manoeuvre and a landing on the SpaceX autonomous drone ship Just Read The Instructions.

Aboard the Resilience were:

  • Jared Isaacman (38), a billionaire entrepreneur and businessman, who founded Shift4 Payments and Draken International, a private air force provider. He underwrote the flight and provided US $100 million for the fund-raising effort (Elon Musk has stated he’ll donate a further US $50 million). He is an experienced jet pilot qualified to fly military aircraft (including jet fighters). He served as the mission’s commander.
  • Sian Proctor (51), the eldest member of the crew and a geology professor and science communicator with unique ties to the US space programme: her father was a NASA engineer during the Apollo programme, and in 2009 she was one of 3,500, people who applied for one of nine places as an astronaut candidate, making it through to the last 47 from whom the 9 were selected. Her interests in space also saw her serve as a member of the mission control team for HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analogue and Simulation), a remote research facility on the slopes of Mauna Loa, Hawaii. She won the Inspiration4 entrepreneurial competition to come up with an idea for the best use of Isaacman’s SHIFT4 platform, and served as the mission pilot. Her presence on the flight made her only the 4th African-American woman to fly into space, and the first to take the role of a mission pilot.
  • Hayley Arceneaux (29), a physician’s assistant at St. Jude’s. A a child she suffered from bone cancer, and received treatment at St. Jude’s receiving treatment that include the replacement of a length of leg bone with a prosthetic. She became an unofficial member of “staff” at the hospital during her long-term treatment, and in adult life returned to work at the hospital in a professional capacity. She was select for the mission by the hospital to both represent it and to serve as an inspiration to children receiving cancer treatment there. She served as the mission’s medical officer, becoming the youngest American to go into orbit, the first paediatric cancer survivor to fly into space, and the first person to fly to space with a prosthetic.
  • Christopher Sembroski (42) an American data engineer with a BSc in aeronautics. He served in the US Air Force, and currently works for Lockheed-Martin. An amateur stargazer, he has also volunteered as a Space Camp counsellor helping to conduct simulated space shuttle flights and in support of STEM-based teaching. He entered the Inspiration4 sweepstake for the final seat on the mission – but was awarded the seat after a close (and unnamed friend) won the seat and then gave it to him.
From left: Isaacman, Arceneaux, Sembroski and Proctor during a livestream with St. Jude’s Hospital patients, carried out from orbit. Credit: Inspiration4 / SpaceX / St. Jude’s Hospital

While Isaacman and Protor fulfilled the roles of mission commander and mission pilot, Resilience flew in a fully automated mode. This allowed them, together with Arceneaux and Sembroski, to complete a highly-compressed training regime based on that given to qualified astronauts using the Crew Dragon vehicles to fly to / from the ISS. This training encompassed lessons in orbital mechanics, operating in a microgravity environment, stress testing, emergency preparedness training, and mission simulations.

Following the shutdown of the Falcon’s second stage motor, crew member Hayley Arceneaux produced the mission’s “fifth” crew member from a pouch in her space suit in the form of a plush doll puppy intended to represent the golden retriever assistance dogs at St. Jude’s, and which, tethered so as not to drift around too much, served as the mission’s “zero-gee” indicator. Following this, as the vehicle reached orbit, the hinged nose of the capsule opened to expose the cupola that had been fitted in place of the vehicle’s docking mechanism, which has been removed as Resilience would not be docking with the ISS.

A keen stargazer and photographer, Chris Sembroski is caught by the external camera on Resilience as he takes a photograph of Earth. Credit: Inspiration4 / SpaceX

After reaching orbit, the mission appeared to go quiet, with almost 24 hours passing before word was heard directly from the crew. In an age when we are used to more-or-less continuous livestreaming during ground-breaking missions (ironically very much fuelled by SpaceX’s own coverage of their missions), the silence promoted some social media speculation that something had gone awry with the mission.

However, the silence was simply down to the fact that as a privately-funded mission, how much (or little) of the time in space was livestreamed was the choice of Isaacman and the crew – and they elected to spend the first 24 hours in space in a combination of acclimatising themselves, appreciating and sharing in their unique situation, and in carrying out several of their planned experiments. A further practical reason for not livestreaming the entire flight is that the Inspiration4 mission is also working with Time Studios and Netflix on a documentary about the flight called Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, the final episode of which will air later this month and likely feature footage from the flight.

With the Earth “above” her, Hayley Arceneaux talks to Earth. Credit: C. Sembroski / Inspiration4

In terms of science, a key part of the mission was to serve as a pathfinder flight for research into “ordinary” people flying into space, albeit on a limited basis, given the brevity of the mission.

To this end, the crew carried with with a range of experiments In this, the mission included a wide range of in-flight health experiments arranged by the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine and Weill Cornell Medicine, and which included measuring fluid shifts, recording ECG activity, blood oxygen levels, heart rates, etc., taking ultrasounds and carrying out microbe sample research. All of the experiments were

In addition, the crew also extended the inspirational aspect of the mission and its ties with St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, by conducting a video conference with children at the hospital who are being treated for cancer.

I just want you all to know that we’re doing this for you. We are thinking about you so much, I wanted to tell you that I was a little girl going through cancer treatment, just like a lot of you. If I can do this, you can do this, and I’m so proud of each and every one of you.

– Hayley Arceneaux to children with cancer being treated by St. Jude’s Hospital

A low-resolution airborne thermal image of Resilience, surrounded by plasma, as it enters the denser part of the atmosphere. Credit: SpaceX

After some 70 hours in space, Resilience commenced its return to Earth on September 18th. This commenced with the capsule separating from its trunk – the lower service module that provided power and life support during the orbital phase of the mission, followed by a 15-minute burn of its de-orbit motors as the vehicle approached the Pacific coast of the central Americas, causing the vehicle to start to drop into the denser part of the atmosphere as it continued onwards towards the Gulf of Mexico.

At 80km altitude, the vehicle entered a period of maximum plasma interference, interrupting all communications with the ground for a period of 4.5 minutes. Re-entry slowed the vehicle from 28,000 km/h to around 560 km/h, exposing the crew to up to 5G in the process. Once travelling at 560 km/h, the vehicle’s twin drogue parachutes deployed, further slowing it to 192 km/h over a period of about a minute, allowing the four main parachutes to deploy. These then slowed the craft through the final two kilometres of descent, allowing it to splashdown off the coast of Florida at a “gentle” 24 km/h.

Splashdown occurred at 23:06 UTC (19:06 EDT) on September 18th, and marked the first time a US crewed space vehicle has splashed down in the Atlantic ocean since Apollo 9 in March 1969 (both the SpaceX Demo-2 and Crew-1 missions splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico). Support boats from the recovery vessel Go Searcher were immediately on the scene, their crews working to both “safe” the capsule and prepare it for lifting aboard the recovery vessel.

With support boats racing towards it, Resilience is captured a split second before splashdown by photographer John Kraus aboard the recovery ship Go Searcher. Credit: Inspriation4
Inspiration4, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome to planet Earth. 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. Thank you for sharing your leadership, hope, generosity and prosperity — and congratulations.

– Kris Young, SpaceX Space Operations Director, mission control, California, following the Inspiration4 splashdown

The recovery operations took some 40 minutes, and included further checks on the vehicle once it was aboard Go Searcher, prior to the side hatch being opened and the crew allowed to egress. Hayley Arceneaux exited first, followed by Proctor, Sembroski and Isaacman. They were escorted to the medical facilities on the recovery ship for an initial check-up and a wash and change of clothes before taking a helicopter to Kennedy Space Centre to undergo further post-flight checks.

With its return to Earth, Inspiration4 has potentially paved the way for more civilian flight opportunities aboard Crew Dragon vehicles, if of a more space tourist style – both Axiom and Space Adventures have contracted with SpaceX to fly fare-paying passengers into space, with Axiom taking them to the ISS, and Space Adventures offering four seats aboard a Crew Dragon free-flying orbital flight similar in format to Inspiration4.

The Inspiration4 crew – Hayley Arceneaux , Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski – after their return to Earth. Credit: Inspiration4

In the meantime, the Inspiration4 mission will continue to raise funds for St. Jude’s Hospital through the sale by auction of a series of items carried on the flight, including NFTs, collectibles and personal items such as artwork created by Sian Proctor during the flight.

Chinese Crew Returns Home As Space Station Supply Mission Readied

September 17th saw the Chinese 3-man crew of Shenzhou 12 make a successful return to Earth after a 3-month stay aboard China’s nascent Tiangong space station.

Commander Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo touched down inside the designated landing zone near Dongfeng in the Gobi Desert, Inner Mongolia, at around 05:34 UTC, and were quickly met by the recovery teams who “safed” the capsule before helping all three out for a Russian-style seated photo-op (the seats to prevent any accidents as the crew started to get reacquainted with gravity in their bulky pressure suits).

Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo – are seen after exiting their Shenzhou capsule after landing in n the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia on Sept. 17th, 2021 to end a 92-day mission to China’s Tianhe module, the first piece of the Tiangong space station. Credit: CMSE

During their 92-day stay in orbit, the crew did much to ready the Tianhe-1 core module of the new space station in preparation for it to receive additional science modules in the coming 18 months. In particular, they verified Tianhe 1’s regenerative life support systems are running smoothly, carried out the installation of equipment both inside the module and on its exterior, and which had been carried to the station by the automated Tianzhou 2 re-supply vehicle ahead of their flight to the station, as well as carrying out research and experiments.

The universe is so vast, beautiful and fascinating. I was fortunate and happy to have the chance to fly up into the sky again and take a spacewalk on our own space station.

– Chinese tiakonaut Liu Boming

At the same time as Shenzhou-12 was departing Tianhe-1 on Wednesday, September 15th in preparation for its 2-day return to Earth, China rolled out what will be the 4th of 11 missions to complete their new space station.

Mounted on a Long March 7 launch vehicle, the Tianzhou 3 re-supply vehicle is expected to depart the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre in Hainan, China, some time on Monday, September 20th, for an automated flight and docking with Tianhe-1. It will carry about six tonnes of cargo and consumables to the module ahead of the next planned crew mission. The latter mission, Shenzhou 13, is due to launch in mid-October and will see a crew of three spend 6 months at the station.

A Long March 7 rocket topped with China’s Tianzhou-3 cargo spacecraft rolls out to its launch pad on September 15th, 2021, and is expected to launch on Monday, September 20th, 2021. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office CMSE)

Prior to the mission Tianzhou 3 arriving at Tinahe-1, the Tianzhou 2 module will detach itself from the aft docking port on the module to re-dock at the forward multi-docking adaptor, where it will complete a propellant transfer to top-up the tanks for Tianhe’s orientation and orbital thrusters. It will remain docked with the station through the arrival of Tianzhou-3, and will be used as a target test for manipulating large objects using the module’s external robot arm.

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