SpaceX said today (Feb. 14) it would fly another set of tourist missions designed to prove out the company’s capabilities in orbit, including testing out the company’s space suit with the first commercial spacewalk.
The program, called Polaris, is still not set in stone, with no launch date set. But the broad outlines are to mount as many as three crewed flights of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule. The earliest launch, dubbed Polaris Dawn, could come at the end of 2022.
The missions will be lead and funded by Jared Isaacman, the billionaire founder of the payments company Shift4. Isaacman also paid for the Inspiration4 mission in 2021, when he and three other private individuals flew on a three day mission orbiting the earth in the Dragon in SpaceX’s first space tourism mission.
That flight was something of a shakedown cruise, demonstrating that SpaceX could loft anyone to orbit, and helping the company clean up some minor issues, like a leaky onboard toilet. It also raised $240 million for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
This mission has broader ambitions: To spend five days in space, fly the highest orbit ever flown above the Earth, test out laser communications between the spacecraft and SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network, and demonstrate the suits SpaceX has designed for extra-vehicular activity. It’s not clear which crew member will attempt the space walk, which would be the first performed by individuals not working for a government.
All of that, in turn, is to lay the groundwork for the company’s next vehicle, called Starship. That vehicle is slated to carry US astronauts to the surface of the Moon, but the tight timeline for getting the vehicle off the ground means it makes sense to start testing what’s ready now in space. Other research set to be done on these flights includes investigations into the life-support systems required to keep space travelers healthy.
The mission is also notable as the first to carry two SpaceX engineers into orbit. Sarah Gillis is responsible for astronaut training at the company, while Anna Menon develops crew operations and has worked in mission control. The final member of the crew is Scott Poteet, a former Air Force officer who works for Isaacman and helped run the Inspiration4 mission.
The rapid advances in space travel wrought by private investment are opening up space travel to new kinds of travelers, albeit wealthy ones. But one unexpected innovation at SpaceX is convincing test pilots to pay for their own flights.