The Shift4 founder plans to do a series of SpaceX flights that include a number of firsts for private spaceflight—including the first crewed Starship mission.
Last September, billionaire Jared Isaacman made space history with his Inspiration4 flight. He and three others became the first-ever private spaceflight to orbit the Earth with a crew of all nonprofessional astronauts. On Monday, he announced that he plans to go back up again in the first of a series of at least three spaceflights, called the Polaris Program, which will culminate in the first crewed mission of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft.
The first mission in the series, Polaris Dawn, will launch as early as the fourth quarter of 2022, with its crew flying a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft propelled to space by a Falcon 9 rocket. It will include a crew of four people, including Isaacman. They are Scott Kidd, an experienced Air Force pilot who will be the mission pilot on board the SpaceX Dragon spaceship; Sarah Gillis, who oversees SpaceX’s astronaut training program; and Anna Menon, a SpaceX engineer who manages development of crew operations.
“The Polaris Program is an important step in advancing human space exploration while helping to solve problems through the use of innovative technology here on Earth,” Isaacman, founder and CEO of payments processor Shift4, said in a statement.
The Polaris program is being jointly funded by SpaceX and Isaacman, though the parties declined to divulge specifics as to the amount or split of the financing. However, unlike Isaacman’s previous Inspiration4 flight, the Polaris missions will be conducting a number of research projects both concerned toward health as well as for aspects of SpaceX’s own technology.
The first flight, Polaris Dawn, has three primary objectives. First, the flight will feature the first-ever spacewalk on a private spaceflight. SpaceX has been developing EVA spacesuits for astronauts to use, which will be utilized on the Polaris Dawn mission. Just who will be making that first spacewalk is still up in the air, though. Isaacman noted in a media briefing that the decision will be made after all four crew members have undergone training, progress with which will determine the ideal candidate.
Secondly, the crew of this Dragon spacecraft will be testing SpaceX’s Starlink communications system in space. Starlink now comprises a system of over 1,800 satellites in orbit, which are providing internet and data services to the surface. The Starlink system is also designed for space-based communications on future crewed missions not only to orbit but to the Moon and Mars as well.
The mission’s third objective will be to research the impact of spaceflight on human health. For example, the spacecraft will fly higher than any crewed mission since the Apollo program, likely higher than the 1,375km altitude achieved by the Gemini 11 mission in 1966. That will take the astronauts through Van Allen radiation belts so the health impacts of radiation can be better understood.
For other health research on the mission, the crew will be collaborating with a number of institutions, including Weill Cornell Medicine, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Colorado Boulder, Translational Institute for Space Health, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Space Technologies Lab at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. That research will include examining the health impacts of decompression as well as the effects of spacecraft on eyesight.
Discussing the financing for the mission at a media briefing, Isaacman noted how much technical capability and testing was going to be occurring on the first Polaris mission and beyond, highlighting how far private spaceflight has come. “I think this should be eye-opening as to what can be achieved through private funding,” he said. “And for what that means for future commercial space exploration missions.”