Last year, billionaire Jared Isaacman went to Earth orbit on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, and he expects to fly with SpaceX again this year. Isaacman said today that he has purchased three more SpaceX flights, a series of “Polaris” trips that would send him deeper into orbit on the company’s spacecraft.
Last September, Isaacman, who built his money from his payment processing company Shift4 Payments, made news when he bankrolled a full SpaceX Crew Dragon passenger trip named Inspiration4. Other civilian astronauts, including a childhood cancer survivor, an engineer, and a professor, were seated in the vehicle’s three remaining seats.
While raising money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the quartet all trained and eventually soared to orbit together on a three-day expedition.
Isaacman now appears to be planning to duplicate his Inspiration4 expedition on ever greater stages. Two missions aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon would go to super-high orbits above Earth as part of the three flights he’s purchased, laying the groundwork for the company’s gigantic new Starship rocket’s first crewed voyage. Isaacman intends to fly again on the first Crew Dragon voyage, dubbed Polaris Dawn.
Scott “Kidd” Poteet, a former Air Force pilot who was the mission director for Inspiration4, is filling the remaining seats with two SpaceX workers, Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon, as well as Scott “Kidd” Poteet, a former Air Force pilot who was the mission director for Inspiration4. The flight would also serve as another fundraising opportunity for St. Jude. If the voyage is successful, it will take SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to the greatest height it has ever flown, much alone with passengers on board. According to Isaacman, the Polaris Dawn trip will travel “far into space than humans have gone since we last stepped on the Moon.” The Crew Dragon has only flown from low Earth orbit back and forth thus far.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon’s primary mission is to transport astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station for NASA. In May of 2020, SpaceX launched its first crew of NASA astronauts aboard the vehicle, which was followed by a handful of other crews over the next few years. However, the business has begun to venture out, having flown its first wholly private mission with Inspiration4 and wants to conduct a series of private missions to the International Space Station for the company Axiom. The Crew Dragon flights are intended to be test missions for SpaceX’s deep-space human travel while also demonstrating certain new capabilities. Polaris Dawn will feature a commercial spacewalk, which will be the first of its kind.
The walker will don a new sort of spacesuit built for spacewalks that SpaceX is presently developing based on the pressure suits used by crew members on the Crew Dragon. The voyage would also put SpaceX’s Starlink “laser-based communications in space” to the test, allowing the company to tap into the vast satellite constellation it’s creating to give global broadband service. Because the voyage will transport the four-person crew into the Van Allen Belts, a zone of radiated particles trapped in Earth’s magnetic field that extends deep into space, the mission will also explore how the crew handles a deeper space environment.
Following the announcement, the Polaris Dawn team had a press conference where they provided more facts. They didn’t specify an altitude for their journey, only that they aimed to fly to the highest Earth orbit ever achieved. “You can get an idea of the target if you look at the Gemini mission,” Isaacman added.
When asked about the progress on the spacewalk suit, the crew declined to indicate how far the design had progressed. “There’s a terrific team of talented engineers working on a spacesuit,” Menon said. “It’ll be extremely fascinating to work with them as their concept emerges.” “And we’ll be sure to keep you updated as we move closer to that moment.”
While the mission’s spacewalker has yet to be chosen, the team has stated that the spacewalker would have to exit through an open hatch, exposing the rest of the crew to the vacuum of space.
“There is no airlock, so we’ll have to take the complete four-person team down to the vacuum,” Menon added. “We’ll do it carefully,” says the narrator.
The crew didn’t specify what “safely” meant, but when the hatch is opened, the remaining three crew members are likely to be wearing a SpaceX suit as well.
Currently, astronauts on Crew Dragon wear an iconic black and white pressure suit during launch and reentry, which is designed to keep humans alive in the event of a rapid depressurization catastrophe. Although those suits aren’t designed to be worn during a spacewalk, they may be able to keep astronauts alive in a vacuum for an extended period of time.
Isaacman wouldn’t specify how much he’s spending on the project in terms of money, only that the Polaris initiative is a collaborative venture between him and SpaceX. “We all know how expensive space is,” Isaacman remarked. “Costs will come down at this point, just like they have with any other, you know, innovative technology.”
Polaris Dawn is scheduled to launch in the fourth quarter of 2022, with further information on the other missions to come. These flights will eventually culminate in the first crewed launch of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle, a massive rocket SpaceX has been constructing for several years to transport huge people to the Moon and eventually Mars. Isaacman said he might be available for the two follow-up missions. “If we accomplish our goals on Polaris Dawn and don’t disappoint,” he remarked, “I’ll be able to participate in future Polaris missions.”
However, Isaacman may have to wait a bit for his last Starship voyage, as the vehicle is still in development and has yet to fly into space. The business did a few high-altitude flight tests with Starship in 2020 and 2021, sending the vehicle to 32,000 feet before attempting to land it. During those testing, Starship only managed to land without blowing up once. SpaceX hopes to fly Starship into orbit this year, albeit the firm’s test flights are predicated on the Federal Aviation Administration giving the company regulatory authority to launch Starship from its South Texas launch facility.
The FAA had previously stated that a decision on whether or not to grant that approval would be made by the end of the month, but today announced that the deadline will be extended until the end of March.
Even if SpaceX manages to send Starship into orbit this year, the corporation still has a long way to go before carrying passengers into deep space on the vehicle. The business must create life support systems, figure out how to fuel the ship in space, and demonstrate that it can land the astronauts safely back on Earth after their journey into deep space. It will most likely take years to develop.
SpaceX continues to sign up customers for Starship as it progresses through development.
NASA gave SpaceX $2.9 billion last year to construct Starship as a lander that would transport astronauts to and from the lunar surface. Another billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa of Japan, purchased a Starship journey called Dear Moon that would carry him and the winners of a sweepstakes around the Moon. Today’s news comes just a few days after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk provided his latest Starship update in Boca Chica, Texas — where the spacecraft is being developed — in which he hinted at future flight profiles. “I believe there will be some future announcements that people will be really excited about,” Musk stated. “Anyway, this has a bright future ahead of it.”