Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who travelled to Earth orbit on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule last year, intends to return to the company. Today, Isaacman announced that he had purchased three more forthcoming flights with SpaceX, a series of missions known as “Polaris” that will carry him deeper into space aboard the company’s spacecraft.
Isaacman, who built his money from his payment processing company Shift4 Payments, made headlines last year when he funded a whole SpaceX Crew Dragon passenger trip dubbed Inspiration4 in September. Other civilian astronauts, including a childhood cancer survivor, an engineer, and a professor, occupied the three remaining seats on the ship. The foursome trained together and eventually soared to orbit together on a three-day expedition to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Now, it appears that Isaacman intends to duplicate his Inspiration4 effort on ever greater stages. The three flights he’s purchased include two missions on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon that would fly to super-high orbits above Earth — building block missions that would eventually lead to the company’s gigantic new Starship rocket’s first crewed voyage. Isaacman intends to fly again on the first Crew Dragon trip, Polaris Dawn. He’s filling the remaining seats with two SpaceX employees, Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon, as well as Scott “Kidd” Poteet, a former Air Force pilot and Inspiration4 mission director. The flight would also provide as another opportunity for St. Jude to raise funds.
If the launch is successful, it will reach the highest altitude reached by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, let alone with humans on board. According to Isaacman, the Polaris Dawn voyage will fly “far into space than humans have gone since we last stepped on the Moon.” So yet, the Crew Dragon has only traveled from low Earth orbit to high Earth orbit. NASA’s primary goal for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is to transport humans and cargo to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX launched its first crew of NASA astronauts aboard the vehicle in May 2020, followed by a handful of more crews over the next few years. However, the business has begun to diversify, flying its first wholly private mission with Inspiration4, and it hopes to undertake a series of private missions to the International Space Station for the company Axiom.
The Crew Dragon flights are intended to act as test missions for deep-space human travel with SpaceX, as well as to try out some new capabilities. Polaris Dawn will involve a commercial spacewalk, which will be the first of its kind. The walker will wear a new sort of spacesuit built for spacewalks, which SpaceX is presently developing based on the pressure suits that Crew Dragon flyers wear. The voyage will also put SpaceX’s Starlink “laser-based communications in orbit” to the test, since it would connect to the huge satellite constellation the company is creating to give global broadband service. The project will also look into how the crew copes with a deeper space environment, since the voyage will carry the four-person crew across the Van Allen Belts, a zone of radiated particles trapped in Earth’s magnetic field that extends far into space.
The Polaris Dawn crew provided additional information during a news conference held following the announcement, which was short on specifics. They didn’t specify an altitude for their journey, only that they aimed to fly to the highest Earth orbit ever. “If you look at the Gemini mission, you’ll get a notion of the target,” Isaacman added.
When asked about the status of the spacewalk suit, the crew did not specify how far the design had progressed. “There’s a terrific team of talented engineers working on a spacesuit, and it’ll be extremely interesting to collaborate as their design evolves,” Menon added. “And we’ll be sure to share additional information with you as we move closer to that time.”
While the spacewalker for this mission has yet to be picked, the team suggested that the spacewalker would have to exit the Crew Dragon through an open hatch, exposing the rest of the crew to the vacuum of space.
“There is no airlock, so we will undoubtedly take the complete team of four down to the vacuum,” Menon explained. “We will, without a doubt, do so safely.”
The crew did not define what “safely” means, although the remaining three crew members would presumably be wearing some sort of SpaceX suit when the hatch is opened. Currently, SpaceX has an iconic black and white pressure suit that astronauts on Crew Dragon wear during launch and reentry, which is designed to keep humans alive in the event of a rapid depressurization catastrophe. These suits aren’t meant to be worn during a spacewalk, but they might be able to keep people alive in a vacuum for a while.
In terms of budget, Isaacman wouldn’t specify how much he’s spending on the project, only that the Polaris program is a collaboration between himself and SpaceX. “We understand that space is expensive,” Isaacman added. “Costs will come down at this point, just like they have with any other, you know, innovative technology.”
Polaris Dawn is currently 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 the Starship spacecraft, a massive rocket SpaceX has been developing for the last few years to transport huge people to the Moon and, eventually, Mars. Isaacman said he might fly on the two follow-up trips. “If we meet our objectives 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 lot longer for his last Starship voyage because the vehicle is still under development and hasn’t even gone into space yet. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the corporation completed a few high-altitude flight tests with Starship, sending the vehicle above 32,000 feet before attempting to land it. During those testing, Starship only successfully landed once without exploding. SpaceX is aiming to send Starship into orbit later this year, albeit the company’s test flights are predicated on the Federal Aviation Administration obtaining SpaceX 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 gets Starship into orbit this year, the company still has a lot of work to do before it can transport people into deep space. The business must create life support systems, figure out how to fuel the ship in space, and demonstrate that it can return passengers to Earth after they have traveled to deep space. It will most likely take years to develop.
SpaceX continues to acquire clients 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, Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, booked a Dear Moon voyage on Starship that would carry him and the winners of a sweepstakes around the Moon. Today’s announcement comes just a few days after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk provided an update on Starship at Boca Chica, Texas — the site of Starship’s development — in which he hinted at future flight profiles. “There will be some future announcements that I believe people will be quite excited about,” Musk stated. “In any case, this has a very interesting future ahead of it.”
Update February 14th, 2:30PM ET: This article was updated to include additional information from a press conference and the FAA.