Billionaire launches new orbital missions with SpaceX

An artist’s conception shows a Project Polaris crew member heading for a spacewalk from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. (Illustration of the Polaris project)

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

The CEO of Shift4 announced today that he will work with SpaceX on a series of three Polaris program missions – starting with a Crew Dragon flight that could launch as soon as this year, and culminating with the first crewed orbital flight of the SpaceX’s Starship supership. rocket.

During the first mission in the series, known as Polaris Dawn, Isaacman and his crew will aim to perform the first spacewalk performed from the Dragon Hatch, testing the laser communication system for the network SpaceX’s Starlink broadband telecommunications company and potentially set an altitude record for spaceflight orbit.

The primary goal of 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, Tennessee, a goal that was achieved. St. Jude’s will also benefit this time around, but the main directive is to test technologies that SpaceX will rely on for future missions to the Moon and Mars.

Isaacman said he and SpaceX split the cost of the mission, but he declined to provide further details on who is paying how much. Two of his teammates for Polaris Dawn — Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon — are SpaceX engineers specializing in crew operations and training. The fourth crew member is veteran fighter pilot Scott “Kidd” Poteet, who served as Mission Director for Inspiration4.

Many details of the Polaris Dawn mission have yet to be worked out: for example, SpaceX has yet to create and test spacesuits capable of withstanding the vacuum of space. But Isaacman was confident that SpaceX would get the job done.

“This is an organization that does things we never could have imagined and makes them happen,” he said.

Polaris Dawn will not dock with the International Space Station. Instead, it will be a free flight mission that will last up to five days, compared to three days for Inspiration4. Isaacman hopes to break the 853-mile altitude record for crewed spaceflight in Earth orbit that was set in 1966 by the crew of Gemini 11. (Project Apollo flights beyond Earth orbit enter a different category.)

“Reaching this altitude is more than breaking a record,” Isaacman said. “Orbiting through portions of the Van Allen Radiation Belt, Polaris Dawn will conduct research to better understand the effects of spaceflight and space radiation on human health.”

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

Polaris Dawn aims to use the Starlink network’s laser communications system to broadcast video transmissions and other data 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 St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s efforts to increase cancer survival rates around the world. “A great way to do this is to use satellite 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 spacesuits, which are improvements over current intravehicular suits,” Isaacman said. “The development of this suit and the execution of the EVA will be important steps towards the scalable design of spacesuits for future long-duration missions.”

It has not yet been decided who will participate in the spacewalk – but all four crew members are expected to wear EVA suits, as the Crew Dragon will not be equipped with an airlock. Instead, the spacecraft’s hatch would be opened to let all the air out, and the cabin would have to be fully repressurized after the EVA.

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

Polaris Dawn’s flight plan 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 agenda of the second Polaris mission would depend on the results of 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 clarified that it was too early to speculate on the timing of the Starship mission, except to say it would precede Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s moon mission – which is targeted, perhaps too optimistic, for 2023. .

For what it’s worth, NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to build a version of Starship that would be capable of carrying astronauts to the lunar surface in 2025. If SpaceX sticks to its schedule, the Polaris mission Starship could serve as a training orbit orbit for 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 the Polaris Dawn 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 the astronaut corps of The NASA.

Anna Menon said that there was no rivalry between the spouses.

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

The training schedule has not yet been set, but it will likely include spacewalk training in a neutral buoyancy pool, flights in a zero-gravity aircraft, and high-acceleration flights in spacecraft. fight.

There will also be team building exercises like the grueling climb of Mount Rainier that the Inspiration4 team completed last spring. Isaacman said it aligned with his belief that it was essential that his crew “feel comfortable being uncomfortable together before going into space.”


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