Washington (AFP)

SpaceX's first four space tourists landed in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida on Saturday evening after spending three days in space, successfully completing the first orbital mission in history to include no professional astronaut on board.

The Dragon capsule resisted the vertiginous descent thanks to its heat shield, then was slowed down by four huge parachutes.

The landing took place on time, 23:06 GMT (19:06 on the US East Coast).

A SpaceX ship had to retrieve the capsule, before the hatch was opened and passengers could exit.

They should then be transported by helicopter to the Kennedy Space Center, from where they took off aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on Wednesday evening.

“It was a hell of a trip for us, and it's only just beginning,” captain billionaire Jared Isaacman said shortly after the landing.

The stated goal of the mission, called Inspiration4, was to mark a turning point in the democratization of space, by proving that the cosmos is also accessible to crews who have not been handpicked and trained for years, such as so are the astronauts.

“Congratulations, Inspiration4,” SpaceX boss Elon Musk tweeted after the landing.

The four novices - Jared Isaacman, who chartered the mission, and three other Americans - spent three days orbiting the Earth, traveling beyond the International Space Station (ISS), up to 590 km d 'altitude.

SpaceX's Dragon capsule, with four space tourists on board, as it ditched off the coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean on September 18, 2021 NASA / AFP handout

Spinning in orbit at around 28,000 km / h, they circled the globe more than 15 times each day.

- Joys of weightlessness -

Jared Isaacman, 38, is the boss of a financial services company and a seasoned pilot.

He paid SpaceX tens and tens of millions of dollars to experience those moments (the exact price has not been revealed).

He had offered three seats to strangers: Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old medical assistant who became the youngest American to ever go to space, Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old earth science professor, and Chris Sembroski, a 42 year old US Air Force alumnus.

Before the trip, their training had only lasted about 6 months - compared to years for professional astronauts.

Once up there, they notably collected data (heart rate, sleep, oxygen saturation in the blood, cognitive abilities, etc.) which should help to better understand the effect of the spatial environment on beginners.

But they also enjoyed the view through a brand new observation dome installed on Dragon, could talk with actor Tom Cruise from their ship, eat pizza or enjoy the joys of weightlessness with music.

- Fundraising -

The mission also serves as a huge fundraiser for the pediatric hospital of St Jude (Memphis, Tennessee), where Hayley Arceneaux works after being treated there as a child of cancer.

Inside the ship were various items - including a ukulele that Chris Sembroski played a few notes of live from the ship on Friday - which are now to be auctioned off for the benefit of the hospital.

First tourist flight without a professional astronaut for SpaceX Simon MALFATTO AFP

This is the third time that Elon Musk's company, which in just a few years has become a giant in the sector, has brought humans back to Earth: during previous missions on behalf of NASA, six astronauts had already experienced a water landing on board from the same ship, after a stay in the ISS.

Inspiration4 concludes a summer marked by the flight of billionaires over the last frontier: first Richard Branson on July 11, aboard the Virgin Galactic ship, then a few days later Jeff Bezos, with his company Blue Origin .

But these suborbital flights only offered a few minutes in zero gravity.

SpaceX is planning further space tourism flights thereafter.

The next one from January 2022, with three businessmen on board.

© 2021 AFP