Isaacman Planning Even More Ambitious Trips to Space

Isaacman Planning Even More Ambitious Trips to Space

Jared Isaacman, the wealthy entrepreneur who flew the Inspiration4 private astronaut mission last fall, is planning to fly again later this year in the first of as many as three more spaceflights. The goals for this next mission, Polaris Dawn, are more ambitious, including the first commercial spacewalk. He still plans to use these spaceflights as fundraising opportunities for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to underscore that human spaceflight and solving problems on Earth are not mutually exclusive.

Instead of using lotteries and competitions like he did for Inspiration4, this time he picked his crewmates himself — a business colleague and two SpaceX employees, all of whom supported Inspiration4. Isaacman and his crewmates held a telecon with reporters today to talk about the Polaris Program and that first mission, Polaris Dawn, planned for the fourth quarter of this year. It is the first of “up to three” crewed missions to Earth orbit that will “ultimately culminate in the first flight of SpaceX’s Starship with humans on board.”

SpaceX’s Elon Musk just gave an update on Starship last week expressing confidence it will make its first orbital flight this year, but that is an uncrewed test flight. He has signaled in the past that he expects a number of uncrewed flights, including launches of batches of his Starlink communications satellites, before putting people on board, so exactly when the first Starship human spaceflight mission will take place is to be determined.

Polaris Dawn will use SpaceX’s certified Crew Dragon spacecraft and a Falcon 9 rocket to put Isaacman, Scott “Kidd” Poteet, Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon into an orbit similar to but higher than Isaacman’s Inspiration4 flight in September. That was a three-day mission. This one will be five days.

The crew of Polaris Dawn, L-R: Jared Isaacman, Anna Menon, Sarah Gillis, Scott “Kidd” Poteet. Credit: Polaris Program Photos

Isaacman said today he wants to reach an altitude higher than any other Earth-orbiting human spaceflight. That record belongs to the 1966 Gemini 11 mission, which reached 853 miles (1,373 kilometers), more than three times the average altitude of the International Space Station at 250 miles (400 kilometers). It’s not just about setting a new record, he insists, but gathering medical data about the effects of spaceflight and space radiation in an orbit that exposes the crew to more time in the Van Allen radiation belts.

He also wants to conduct the first commercial spacewalk. Or spacewalks. How many there will be and which crew members will conduct them has not been decided. In fact, they all were quite vague about the details. Within this year, they plan to use yet-to-be-developed SpaceX spacesuits, upgraded from SpaceX’s existing launch and reentry suits, to step out into space. It is not only the spacewalkers that will rely on them, but all four crew members since unlike the space shuttle and International Space Station, Crew Dragon does not have an airlock. The spacecraft will be depressurized as was done in the Gemini and Apollo programs, exposing the entire crew to the vacuum of space.

Asked about the status of those spacesuits, Isaacman simply praised SpaceX for making reality out of things that seem impossible and Menon offered that a “fantastic team of brilliant engineers” is working on it.

The crew also will conduct a variety of experiments and test communications through SpaceX’s Starlink broadband communications satellite network.

Spaceflights by billionaires like Isaacman have been subject to criticism that the money should be spent on solving problems on Earth instead. He emphasized today that a choice doesn’t need to be made. Both can be done simultaneously.

I’m incredibly passionate that we can make meaningful progress towards a world we all want to live in for tomorrow while also working to address the challenges and hardships of today. It does not have to be one or the other, but in fact can be both.

Along those lines, as with Inspiration4, he is linking this mission with fundraising for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. This time, though, instead of benefiting the hospital itself, the money will go to the St. Jude Global Health Initiative to fight childhood cancer around the world including through satellite-based connectivity and telemedicine.

The crew for Inspiration4 was selected by a variety of means. St. Jude selected Hayley Arceneaux, a patient when she was 10 years old who later became a medical assistant there. Sian Proctor won a competition using Isaacman’s Shift4Shop website to create a business and explain why she should fly in space. Chris Sembroski had a friend who won a lottery by donating money to St. Jude, but could not make the trip himself and gave his buddy the ticket.

This time, Isaacman picked people he knew. Poteet is a retired military pilot who worked with Isaacman on his Draken International and Shift4Payments businesses and was a Mission Director for Inspiration4. Gillis and Menon both are SpaceX employees who worked on Inspiration4 as well. Gillis is SpaceX’s director of astronaut training. Menon, who previously worked for NASA as a biomedical flight controller, now manages development of crew operations at SpaceX.

NASA astronaut candidate Anil Menon. Credit: NASA

Interestingly, Menon is married to NASA Astronaut Candidate Anil Menon.

She told the story today that when her husband was selected by NASA and they told their 4-year-old son that “daddy was going to be an astronaut” he asked “mama, when are you going to be an astronaut?”

She didn’t know at that time that Isaacman would soon invite her to fly with him on this mission. Asked today how she feels now that she’ll be going to space before her husband (he will not be eligible for a NASA flight assignment until he completes training), she replied they are both very supportive of each other’s aspirations and “whoever gets there first, we’re both just really excited to be going through it together.”

Isaacman declined to answer any questions about how much the missions are costing or how much he is paying. He said only that the Polaris program is “fully funded and a contribution from both SpaceX and myself.”

The timeline for what comes after Polaris Dawn is to be determined. “Mission II” will expand on Mission I, and “Mission III” will be the first human spaceflight on Starship.

In 2018, Musk signed a deal with Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for the first Starship (then called BFR) flight around the Moon in 2023. Isaacman’s Starship flight will be in Earth orbit. Asked if he’d been in touch with Maezawa to see if he and some of his Starship crewmates might be invited along on the Moon trip, Dear Moon, since they’d have experience with the spacecraft, Isaacman said no, but it sounds like an “incredibly exciting” mission.

Private human spaceflight seems to be hitting its stride. In addition to the suborbital missions by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic and Isaacman’s orbital Inspiration4 mission, Russia has resumed launching “space tourists” to the International Space Station. Most recently Maezawa and his production assistant Yozo Hirano flew to ISS on a Soyuz spacecraft in December, perhaps as a prelude to Dear Moon.

The first U.S. private astronaut mission to ISS, Axiom-1, is scheduled for March 30.

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