Polaris Dawn EVA
The first mission of the Polaris program, Polaris Dawn, will include the first spacewalk on a commercial mission. Credit: Polaris Program

WASHINGTON — The first flight of the Polaris program of private astronaut missions is now scheduled for no earlier than next April, a delay of nearly a year and a half from its original plan.

In social media posts Dec. 9, Jared Isaacman, the billionaire backing the Polaris program and who is commanding the initial mission, said the launch of Polaris Dawn is now scheduled for April 2024.

“April is the goal to launch & the pace of training is accelerating,” he wrote, stating that he was at SpaceX that day for testing of extravehicular activity (EVA) spacesuits that will be used on the mission.

Conducting a spacewalk is one of the major goals of Polaris Dawn, requiring both development of an EVA suit as well as modifications to the Crew Dragon, which lacks an airlock. Both of those have been challenges, he suggested in a subsequent post.

There is a “big difference,” he wrote, between the pressure suits worn by Crew Dragon astronauts and an EVA suit “engineered from the start to be exposed to vacuum outside the spaceship.” The lack of an airlock also requires changes to Crew Dragon software and hardware to enable depressurization of the cabin before the start of the spacewalk and repressurization afterwards.

Other issues he identified include demonstrating intersatellite laser communications links between the Crew Dragon spacecraft and SpaceX’s Starlink constellation as well as testing electronics for the higher radiation environment on the Polaris Dawn mission. The Crew Dragon will fly an orbit that will take it to altitudes of up to 1,400 kilometers, far higher than previous Crew Dragon missions and one that brings it close to the inner edge of the Van Allen Belt.

The launch of Polaris Dawn has suffered delays of nearly a year and a half. When Isaacman announced the Polaris program in February 2022, five months after he commanded the Inspiration4 private astronaut mission on a Crew Dragon, he said Polaris Dawn was scheduled to fly as soon as the fourth quarter of 2022.

That launch date has repeatedly slipped since the announcement. Speaking at a conference in February, Isaacman said the mission had been rescheduled for the summer. “We’re now just months away from flying,” he said then.

By summer, though, the launch had been delayed again. Isaacman said in a CNBC podcast interview that the launch would “probably” slip to early 2024. He said the mission “should launch in the first quarter of 2024” during a panel discussion at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in September.

Those public comments and social media posts have been the few updates the Polaris program has provided in recent months. The program’s website has not published a formal update since May. On social media, the latest update from the program, other than Isaacman’s comments, was a schedule of air show appearances planned for 2024.

“It’s a development program with ambitious objectives.  Schedule slips should be expected,” Isaacman wrote Dec. 9.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...