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Billionaire Jared Isaacman talks origin of Polaris Program and how it could impact spaceflight

‘There’s just so much confidence in the SpaceX team here’

The Polaris Dawn crew (from L to R): Anna Menon, Scott Poteet, Jared Isaacman, and Sarah Gillis
Image: Polaris Program/John Kraus

Yesterday, billionaire and private astronaut Jared Isaacman announced his plans to fly to space again on another SpaceX mission. His next flight, targeting the end of the year, will take him even deeper in space than his last flight with the company. It will also be the first in a series of three human spaceflight missions he’s funding with SpaceX, called the Polaris Program.

The creator of Shift4 Payments, Isaacman is perhaps best known for funding an entire flight on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which took him and three other private flyers on a three-day trip to Earth’s orbit. Called Inspiration4, the mission was meant to showcase how everyday people — not just NASA and government astronauts — can train and fly to space.

This time, Isaacman is heading to space with some of his closest colleagues, including two SpaceX engineers and Scott “Kidd” Poteet, who served as the mission director of Inspiration4. And for this flight, it won’t be just any camping trip in space. For the first of the three missions, Polaris Dawn, the four-person crew that includes Isaacman, will be conducting the first-ever commercial spacewalk, with a new suit that SpaceX is currently developing. To get outside, the crew will open a hatch on Dragon while everyone is wearing a suit, exposing the entire crew to space. Then one flyer will leave the vehicle to perform the spacewalk.

It’s a much more complex mission than Inspiration4, especially since Isaacman announced plans for Polaris Dawn to fly to the highest Earth orbit ever flown. The Verge spoke with Isaacman and Poteet about the recent announcement and how they feel about taking on such an enterprising mission.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

I‘d love to get started by hearing about how your experience with Inspiration4 led to this next phase of missions. When did the discussions on Polaris really begin, and how did they evolve into the program that you guys announced today?

Isaacman: There were some discussions prior to the launch where there was some collaboration of how we can basically embark on essentially a private space program that will ultimately lead to the first crewed launch of Starship. We did not really flesh it out fully and arrive at what objectives we really wanted to achieve until after we came back from Inspiration4. At some point, you had to really zero in on just Inspiration4’s objectives and get that right in order to even have the opportunity for these additional missions.

I will say coming back from Inspiration4, I felt like the bar was really high — that we really accomplished quite a bit. And then to go again, and to really embark on this endeavor, it just had to be very impactful and make a difference for what we’d like to accomplish in space.

With Inspiration4, it felt like, apart from the cupola, much of the hardware had already been crafted and tested for the mission. With this flight, it’s different. There seems to be quite a lot of technology that needs to be developed still, and there’s inherently more risk involved given the spacewalk. So I’m wondering how that affected your decision-making process when you decided to move forward with this.

Isaacman: I think you have to believe that every one of the objectives is important for achieving the bigger ambitions of opening up human spaceflight for everyone and making humankind a spacefaring civilization. If you’re going to have a presence on the Moon or Mars, you’re probably going to want to get outside your habitat or vehicle and conduct work. You’re going to need a lot of spacesuits to be able to do it. So I think a spacewalk is an important building block in terms of the bigger Starship programming ambitions.

SpaceX’s Starship prototype on the launch mound in Boca Chica, Texas.
Image: Polaris Dawn/John Kraus

Even though every one of these things comes with some degree of risk, they’re all going to be calculated or mitigated to the greatest extent possible because we’re not going to fly any component on this mission unless you believe you can be successful doing so.

In terms of hardware and software changes, I don’t think you’re talking about significant changes. There will be some changes from just a life support, consumables perspective. There will be some software changes, and then our payload and some of the technology that we’ll be demonstrating, like Starlink, will be different. But I don’t think you’re talking about any radical changes to vehicle design.

Not radical changes, but for instance, somebody brought up to me that if you’re going to be opening the door to the vacuum, you probably want to test out the Dragon components in a vacuum, as well. I’m just curious with that added layer of risk and new things that have to be done; I think the basic question is: is it a little scary?

Isaacman: First, Dragon has been designed from the start to be able to vent down to vacuum. That was a contingency capability in the vehicle since it was first flown. That capability existed when we flew Inspiration4; we just certainly didn’t do it because we didn’t intend to spacewalk.

I don’t think any of us are scared of this operation, any more than any other element to human spaceflight. There’s just so much confidence in the SpaceX team here. I mean, I’ve said it before, but this is the team that’s landing rockets on ships, and they’ve done it 90-some odd times. And no one else has done it even once, so this inspires a lot of confidence, not to mention the fact that personally, they sent me to orbit and brought me back safely, and that also inspires a substantial amount of confidence.

Poteet: I would characterize it as more excitement than being scared. A perfect example is we just met with the suit team to get a brief update on the development of the spacesuit, and what they were able to show us is just another testament of the skills and professionalism that this team has. We’re fully confident in what they’re going to be able to produce, and they’re going to involve us throughout this entire development. And that’s going to help us have the competence to execute this mission.

You mentioned we’d learned more about the suit. Is there any timeline you can give us on when we’ll get more details or look at this thing?

Isaacman: I don’t think we have a specific timeline now, but similar to Inspiration4, you should expect periodic updates throughout the mission. I know we did discuss at the announcement earlier today, we plan to have a dedicated science, research, and tech update a little bit farther down the line. You know, that might be a good opportunity to share a little more about suit development.

You were one of [a few] billionaires to go to space last year, and there’s been a lot of discussion about how that money is spent on space travel and whether or not it’s worthwhile. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, especially as you’re spending probably a large sum on a lot of new missions.

Isaacman: All the missions of 2021 were just incredibly exciting, right? That we’re even living in this world right now — to see this happening as frequently as we did — what a great thing it is to have human spaceflight returned to the United States after nearly a 10-year hiatus. So, in that respect, it’s all good.

I would say these missions aren’t all created equal. Every one of them had different objectives. I think that’s really important when people measure how effective they were and the contributions that they made to broader society. One thing for sure is being privately funded is going to lower the cost for government missions, which is a benefit to all taxpayers.

I would say it is about balance, right? I’ve been pretty consistent about that throughout all of Inspiration4. You can make progress for a better world tomorrow without ignoring the problems of today. I can’t speak for the other missions that you referenced. I don’t know if they conveyed that message as well as we did, but I know it’s one that we’re incredibly passionate about. It’s why we were able to raise so much money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It’s a passion that continues to exist now with everyone on the Polaris program. We’ll be able to do both.

I think at any time in history, we could have hit the pause button and said “why are we doing this? Why are we spending all this money putting up these ugly cell phone towers so that rich people in Wall Street can have their car phones and look obnoxious driving in traffic?” And then you roll that clock forward 30, 40 years and everybody is connected in a different way, which has undoubtedly saved lives. We don’t know what the future totally holds. But I think it’s certainly worth learning and seeing what we can find out there without turning our back to the problems that we have here on Earth.

You mentioned a lot of intent to research human health on this mission, and there’s been a lot of comparisons to, say, the Gemini missions, except this one is privately funded. I’m curious what you expect to learn from this trip that you think will be different from what NASA has gathered in the past?

Isaacman: I would imagine NASA would be the first to say that they have an entire laundry list of requests to fly payload and experiments and research on orbit. It is not like everything that we’re hoping to learn in microgravity has been exhausted. The reality is universities and institutions are lining up to get some of their experiments up on this mission, some especially more so than even trips to the space station.

The radiation profile at north of 1400 kilometers is substantially different than at 400 kilometers. So if you have experiments, or hypothetically you developed a vest that can provide a countermeasure to radiation exposure, you’d be more inclined to want to fly it on Polaris Dawn.

The reality is we have a team, essentially a committee, that’s kind of prioritizing the list of requests. We probably have three times the number of educational institutions partnered with Polaris than we did on Inspiration4, so now it’s essentially like a prioritization exercise.