SpaceX and Isaacman to partner on series of crewed Dragon and Starship flights

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WASHINGTON — The billionaire who paid for and commanded the first private Crew Dragon mission last year announced Feb. 14 a program of additional missions that will culminate in the first crewed flight of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle.

Jared Isaacman, who funded and flew on the Inspiration4 Crew Dragon mission last September, said he was starting the Polaris Program to build up experience in human spaceflight in cooperation with SpaceX to help the company meet its goals of sending humans to the moon and Mars.

Polaris “is a series of pioneering Dragon space missions that will aim to rapidly advance capabilities for human exploration,” Isaacman said in a call with reporters. “This program has been purposefully designed to advance long-duration human spaceflight capabilities and guiding us toward the ultimate goal of facilitating Mars exploration.”

The first mission, called Polaris Dawn, will fly no earlier than the fourth quarter of 2022. The mission, lasting up to five days. will go to a higher altitude than previous Crew Dragon missions, including Isaacman’s Inspiration4 mission that went to 585 kilometers. “We’re endeavoring to fly to the highest Earth orbit ever flown” for a crewed mission, he said. Gemini 11 in 1966 reached an apogee of about 1,375 kilometers.

The flight will also include an extravehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalk, the first on a commercial mission, using a modified version of the pressure suit worn by Crew Dragon astronauts. “The development of this suit and the execution of the EVA will be important steps towards the scalable design for spacesuits for future long-duration missions,” he said.

Because the Crew Dragon spacecraft lacks an airlock, all four members of the crew will have to don suits to depressurize the cabin for the spacewalk. Isaacman and others involved with Polaris provided few additional details on the designs of the suits or plans for the spacewalk during the call.

Unlike Inspiration4, which flew nonprofessional astronauts selected in part through contests, Isaacman said he had already chosen the crew for Polaris Dawn. He will again command the mission, with Scott “Kidd” Poteet, a retired Air Force pilot who was one of the ground directors for Inspiration4, as pilot. Two SpaceX employees, Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon, will fly as mission specialists. Menon is married to Anil Menon, a former SpaceX flight surgeon selected by NASA in December as part of its latest astronaut class.

“Polaris Dawn’s mission has numerous, important objectives, so in partnership with SpaceX we’ve selected a crew of experts who know each other well from our work together on Inspiration4 and have a foundation of trust that we can build upon,” Isaacman said.

During the hourlong media call, Isaacman and the other Polaris Dawn crew members declined to go into details about many aspects of the mission, from the proposed spacewalk to future plans, which include a second, tentative Crew Dragon mission followed by an orbital flight on Starship that will be the first launch of that vehicle that carries people.

That lack of details extended to financing. “I’m not going to comment on that,” Isaacman said when asked about the cost of Polaris, other than to say that the series of Polaris missions is “fully funded” with unspecified support from SpaceX. “This is a contribution from both SpaceX and myself towards the important goals we want to achieve with the Polaris program.”

Isaacman used Inspiration4 as a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. That raised more than $240 million, including $100 million from Isaacman himself and $50 million from Elon Musk at the conclusion of the mission. Isaacman said that Polaris will also raise “funds and awareness” for St. Jude, but as part of a “global health initiative” details of which he did not disclose beyond some sort of use of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network for telemedicine. Polaris Dawn plans to use Starlink’s laser intersatellite links for communications, he said.

The timeline for future Polaris missions is also uncertain, in part because of the ongoing development of Starship. That vehicle has yet to make its first orbital flight attempt, and the Federal Aviation Administration announced Feb. 14 it was pushing back a deadline for completing an environmental review required for Starship’s launch license from Feb. 28 to March 28.

That first crewed orbital flight would come only after many uncrewed launches, including for SpaceX’s Starlink constellation. “Long before we ever climb into Starship on the conclusion of the Polaris program, there’s going to be tons of Starlink missions and, I’m sure, other cargo and payload missions first,” Isaacman said.

He added he was interested in commanding that first crewed Starship mission. “Let’s get Polaris Dawn right and then we’ll think about the next mission and, ultimately, someday, we’ll see a Starship fly with humans on board.”