Elon Musk surprised his first all-private crew of space tourists with a welcome home gift after their trailblazing trip to orbit ended on Saturday night: a $50m donation to the children’s charity St Jude.
The billionaire SpaceX founder tweeted soon after their Atlantic ocean splashdown off the Florida coast that he was gifting the money towards the mission’s stated goal of raising $200m for the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee.
“Count me in for $50m,” Musk wrote, in response to a tweet from the four-person crew that they were: “Happy. Healthy. Home.” The crew asked for the public’s help in reaching their fundraising target.
The trip’s sponsor and commander, Jared Isaacman, paid SpaceX undisclosed millions for the trip and threw in the first $100m for charity himself.
Isaacman, 38, an entrepreneur and pilot, said he wanted to show that ordinary people could blast into orbit by themselves. He held a lottery for one of the four seats and a competition for clients of his Allentown, Pennsylvania, payment-processing business, Shift4 Payments, for another.
Their SpaceX capsule parachuted into the ocean just before sunset, not far from where their flight began three days earlier.
“On behalf of SpaceX, welcome back to planet Earth,” a mission controller said. “Your mission has shown the world that space is for all of us.”
“Thanks so much, SpaceX,” Isaacman said. “It was a heck of a ride for us … just getting started.”
The all-amateur crew was the first to circle the world without a professional astronaut. The fully automated Dragon capsule reached an unusually high altitude of 363 miles after liftoff on Wednesday. The passengers savoured views of Earth through a big bubble-shaped window added to the top of the capsule.
The four were the first space travellers to end their flight in the Atlantic since Apollo 9 in 1969. SpaceX’s two previous crewed splashdowns, carrying astronauts for Nasa, were in the Gulf of Mexico. The crew members were due to have medical checks before going to Kennedy Space Center by helicopter for a reunion with their families.
“It was a very clean mission from start to finish,” said Benji Reed, a SpaceX senior director.
Nearly 600 people have reached space – a scorecard that began 60 years ago and is expected to accelerate as space tourism heats up.
Reed anticipates as many as six private flights a year, sandwiched between astronaut launches for Nasa. Four SpaceX flights are already booked carrying paying customers to the space station, accompanied by former Nasa astronauts.
The first is targeted for early next year with three businessmen paying $55m apiece. Russia also plans to take up an actor and film director for filming next month and a Japanese tycoon in December.
Customers interested in quick trips are turning to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. The two rode their own rockets to the fringes of space in July. Their flights lasted 10 to 15 minutes.