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Billionaire kicks off new orbital missions with SpaceX, featuring spacewalk and Starlink tests

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An artist’s conception shows a Polaris Project crew member heading out for a spacewalk from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship. (Polaris Project Illustration)

Five months after billionaire tech entrepreneur Jared Isaacman led a crew for a privately funded philanthropic space mission, he’s doing it again. And maybe again, and again.

The Shift4 CEO announced today that he’ll be working with SpaceX on a series of three Polaris Program missions — starting with a Crew Dragon flight that could launch as early as this year, and climaxing with the first crewed orbital flight of SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket.

During the first mission of the series, known as Polaris Dawn, Isaacman and his crew will aim to conduct the first spacewalk done from the Dragon’s hatch, test the laser communication system for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband telecom network, and potentially set an altitude record for orbital spaceflight.

The main goal for last September’s Inspiration4 flight, paid for by Isaacman, was to raise more than $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. — a goal that was achieved. St. Jude’s will also be a beneficiary this time around, but the prime directive is to test technologies that SpaceX will rely on for future missions to the moon and Mars.

Isaacman said he and SpaceX are splitting the mission cost, but he declined to provide any further details about who’s paying how much. Two of his crewmates for Polaris Dawn — Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon — are SpaceX engineers who specialize in crew operations and training. The fourth crew member is veteran fighter pilot Scott “Kidd” Poteet, who served as a mission director for Inspiration4.

Lots of the details behind the Polaris Dawn mission remain to be filled in: For example, SpaceX still has to create and test spacesuits that can stand up to the vacuum of space. But Isaacman was confident SpaceX would get the job done.

“This is an organization that makes things that we never could have imagined and brings it to reality,” he said.

Polaris Dawn won’t dock with the International Space Station. Instead, it’ll be a free-flying mission that’ll last up to five days, as opposed to the three days for Inspiration4. Isaacman hopes to break the 853-mile-high altitude record for crewed spaceflight in Earth orbit that was set in 1966 by the crew of Gemini 11. (Project Apollo’s flights beyond Earth orbit fall into a different category.)

“Achieving this altitude is more than just breaking a record,” Isaacman said. “Orbiting through portions of the Van Allen radiation belt, Polaris Dawn will conduct research with the aim of better understanding the effects of spaceflight and space radiation on human health.”

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will be part of a consortium of research collaborators that also includes the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, BioServe Space Technologies, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University’s Space Technologies Lab, Weill Cornell Medicine, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Polaris Dawn aims to use the Starlink network’s laser-based communication system to stream video transmissions and other data back to Earth. Starlink satellites are built at SpaceX’s manufacturing facility in Redmond, Wash., and SpaceX has been testing the satellites’ laser links in orbit for more than a year.

Isaacman said Starlink could play a role in furthering efforts at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital to raise cancer survival rates around the world. “A great way to do that is through satellite-based connectivity, in telemedicine,” he said.

The centerpiece of the mission would be the spacewalk.

“Polaris Dawn will attempt the first-ever commercial spacewalk with SpaceX-designed extravehicular-activity spacesuits, which are upgrades from the current intravehicular suits,” Isaacman said. “The development of this suit and the execution of the EVA will be important steps toward the scalable design of spacesuits for future long-duration missions.”

It hasn’t yet been decided who’ll go on the spacewalk — but all four crew members would have to be wearing EVA suits, because the Crew Dragon won’t be equipped with an air lock. Instead, the spacecraft’s hatch would be opened to let all the air escape, and the cabin would have to be completely repressurized after the EVA.

Polaris Dawn’s crew includes Anna Menon, lead space operations engineer at SpaceX; mission pilot Scott Poteet, a veteran fighter jet pilot; Jared Isaacman, the billionaire CEO and founder of Shift4 Payments; and Sarah Gills, who’s responsible for SpaceX’s astronaut training program. (Polaris Program Photo / John Kraus)

The flight plan for Polaris Dawn calls for the mission to begin with a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and end with an ocean splashdown.

The timing and the agenda for the second Polaris mission would depend on the results from the first mission. The third mission would involve SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy launch system, which is currently under development at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in South Texas.

Isaacman made clear that it was too early to speculate on the timing for the Starship mission, except to say that it would precede Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s round-the-moon mission — which is targeted, perhaps overoptimistically, for 2023.

For what it’s worth, NASA has awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to build a version of Starship that would be capable of carrying astronauts down to the lunar surface in 2025. If SpaceX holds to its schedule, the Polaris Starship mission could serve as an orbital practice run for the crewed lunar missions to follow.

Isaacman said the idea for the Polaris Program evolved during preparations for Inspiration4 and his discussions with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. All of Polaris Dawn’s crew members were involved in preparations for the Inspiration4 mission, but Anna Menon has an additional family connection to spaceflight: Her husband, Anil Menon, was selected in December to join NASA’s astronaut corps.

Anna Menon said there’s no rivalry between spouses.

“We are just both really supportive of each other’s aspirations and really excited to support each other as we both go through these individual endeavors of the family,” she said. “So, you know, whoever gets there first, we’re both just really excited to be going through it together.”

The training schedule hasn’t yet been set — but it’s likely to include spacewalk training in a neutral-buoyancy pool, flights in a zero-gravity airplane and high-acceleration rides in fighter jets.

There will also be team-building exercises like the grueling Mount Rainier climb that the Inspiration4 crew made last spring. Isaacman said that’s in line with his belief that it’s essential to have his crew “get comfortable being uncomfortable together before we go to space.”

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