Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who flew to Earth orbit on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule last year, plans to fly with SpaceX again. Today, Isaacman announced that he’s purchased three additional upcoming flights with SpaceX, a series of missions called “Polaris” that would take him deeper into space on the company’s spacecraft.
Isaacman, who made his fortune through his payment processing company Shift4 Payments, made headlines last year when he bankrolled an entire SpaceX Crew Dragon passenger mission in September, dubbed Inspiration4. He filled the three remaining seats on the vehicle with other civilian astronauts, including a childhood cancer survivor, an engineer, and a professor. The quartet all trained and eventually flew to orbit together on a three-day trip while raising money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Now, it looks like Isaacman plans to recreate his Inspiration4 mission multiple times over and on increasingly grander scales. The three flights he’s bought include two missions on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon that would fly to super-high orbits around Earth — building block missions that would eventually lead to the first crewed flight on the company’s massive new Starship rocket. On the first Crew Dragon trip, called Polaris Dawn, Isaacman plans to fly again. 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 who was the mission director for Inspiration4. And the flight would also serve as another St. Jude fundraising opportunity.
If the flight is successful, it’d fly to the highest altitude that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule has ever gone, let alone with people on board. Isaacman claims the Polaris Dawn flight will go “farther into space than humans have gone since we’ve last walked on the Moon,” he told the Today Show. So far, the Crew Dragon has only flown back and forth from low Earth orbit. The primary purpose of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is to ferry astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station for NASA. SpaceX flew its first crew of NASA astronauts on the vehicle in May of 2020, followed by a handful of other crews throughout the last few years. But the company has started branching out, flying its first fully private mission with Inspiration4, and it has plans to launch a series of private missions for the company Axiom to the International Space Station.
The Crew Dragon flights are meant to serve as precursor missions for testing out deep-space human travel with SpaceX while trying out some new capabilities. Polaris Dawn will include a spacewalk, which would be the first commercial one ever conducted. The walker will wear a new type of spacesuit designed for spacewalks, currently being developed by SpaceX based off of the pressure suits flyers wear on the Crew Dragon. The flight would also test out SpaceX’s Starlink “laser-based communications in space,” tapping into the massive satellite constellation the company is building to provide global broadband coverage. The mission will also investigate how the crew handles a deeper space environment, as the flight will take the four-person crew through the Van Allen Belts, a zone of radiated particles trapped in Earth’s magnetic field that extend deep into space.
The Polaris Dawn crew gave more details during a press conference following the announcement, which was light on specifics. They didn’t provide a specific altitude for their flight, only saying that they wanted to go to the highest Earth orbit ever flown. “If you reference the Gemini mission, that’ll give you an idea of the target,” Isaacman said.
When asked about the progress toward the spacewalk suit, the crew did not say exactly how far along the design is. “There’s a fantastic team of brilliant engineers working on a spacesuit, and it’ll be really exciting to work together as their design unfolds,” Menon said. “And we’ll be certain to share more details with you as we get to that point.”
While the spacewalker for this mission also hasn’t been chosen yet, the team indicated that in order for the spacewalker to leave the Crew Dragon, he or she would have to exit through an open hatch, exposing the rest of the crew to the vacuum of space.
“There is no airlock, and so we will certainly be taking the entire team of four down to the vacuum,” Menon said. “We’ll certainly be doing so safely.”
The crew didn’t explain what “safely” meant, but presumably, the remaining three crew members would be wearing some kind of SpaceX suit as well when the hatch is opened. As of now, SpaceX has an iconic black and white pressure suit that is worn by astronauts on Crew Dragon during launch and reentry, meant to keep people alive in case of a sudden depressurization event. Those suits are not meant to be worn during a spacewalk, but they may still be able to keep astronauts alive in a vacuum for some time.
As far as budget, Isaacman wouldn’t say how much he’s spending on the mission, just that the Polaris program is a joint investment between himself and SpaceX. “We know space is expensive,” Isaacman said. “At this point, costs will come down, just as they have from any other, you know, groundbreaking technology.”
As of now, Polaris Dawn is targeting a launch in the fourth quarter of 2022, with more details to follow for the other missions. Ultimately these flights will culminate with the first crewed launch of the Starship vehicle, a gargantuan rocket SpaceX has been developing for the last few years to take large crews to the Moon and eventually Mars. Isaacman indicated that he might fly on the two follow-up missions. “if we achieve our objectives on Polaris Dawn and don’t disappoint, I’ll have the opportunity to participate in future Polaris missions,” he said.
Isaacman may be waiting a while for his final Starship mission, though, as the vehicle is still in development and hasn’t even flown to space yet. Through 2020 and 2021, the company conducted a few high-altitude flight tests with Starship, sending the vehicle above 32,000 feet before attempting to land it back on the ground. During those tests, Starship successfully landed only once without blowing up. SpaceX is working toward getting Starship into orbit sometime this year, though its test flights are partly contingent on the Federal Aviation Administration granting SpaceX regulatory approval to launch Starship from the company’s South Texas launch facility. A decision on whether or not to grant that approval was expected at the end of the month, but today, the FAA said it would be extending its deadline to the end of March.
Even if SpaceX does get Starship into orbit this year, there are still plenty of things the company must do before flying people on the vehicle into deep space. The company must develop life support systems, figure out how to fuel the vehicle in space, and show that it can land the people back on Earth after returning from deep space. It’s likely got years of development ahead.
As Starship goes through development, SpaceX continues to rack up customers for the vehicle. Last year, NASA awarded SpaceX $2.9 billion to develop Starship as a lander that would take the space agency’s astronauts to and from the lunar surface. And another billionaire, Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, also purchased a flight on Starship called Dear Moon that would take him and winners of a contest around the Moon. Today’s news comes just a few days after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave his latest update on Starship down in Boca Chica, Texas — the site of Starship’s development — where he hinted about future flight profiles. “There’s going to be some future announcements that I think people will be pretty fired up about,” Musk said. “So anyway, super exciting future ahead with this.”
Update February 14th, 2:30PM ET: This article was updated to include additional information from a press conference and the FAA.