SpaceX is planning its highest Dragon flight yet, with a private crew

Anna Menon, Scott Poteet, Jared Isaacman and Sarah Gillis

Anna Menon, Scott Poteet, Jared Isaacman and Sarah Gillis

Polaris Program

SpaceX has announced a new project aiming to take its Dragon spacecraft higher than ever before. The first flight of this programme, called Polaris Dawn, is scheduled for the end of 2022.

Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who sponsored and flew aboard SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission in September 2021, is planning to create a similar mission with Polaris Dawn, again without any government-trained astronauts.

There are three planned missions in the Polaris programme, the first of which will comprise a Dragon capsule launching atop a Falcon 9 rocket, and the last of which is intended to be the first launch of SpaceX’s Starship craft, which is planned to take astronauts to the moon in the future. In a press call on 14 February, Isaacman declined to comment on the goals of the second mission.

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He also declined to disclose the cost of the Polaris programme, aside from stating that it will be shared between himself and SpaceX.

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Polaris Dawn is scheduled to launch no earlier than 1 November. In addition to Isaacman, its crew will include retired US Air Force officer Scott Poteet – who works for Isaacman’s company Shift4 – SpaceX astronaut trainer Sarah Gillis, and SpaceX mission control officer Anna Menon, who will serve as the mission’s medical officer.

It is planned to last five days, during which the Dragon capsule will fly higher than it ever has before, although Isaacman declined to give a number for the planned altitude. “We will fly higher than any Dragon mission has ever flown and endeavour to reach the highest Earth orbit ever flown by humans since the Apollo missions,” he said.

The first spacewalk, or extravehicular activity (EVA), ever performed by a commercial astronaut is also planned for this mission. The design of the spacesuit for this isn’t yet complete, but it will be a single suit used for both the launch itself and the spacewalk, said Menon on the press call. Because the Dragon crew capsule lacks an airlock, the entire crew will have to wear spacesuits during the spacewalk because the door to the capsule will be open to the vacuum, she said.

This privately funded mission has more ambitious research and development objectives than previous private missions. It will be the first to test SpaceX’s Starlink communication satellites in communications from space to Earth. The mission will also involve conducting medical research to help understand how space affects astronauts, and tests of the spacesuits. The spacesuit testing and the eventual Starship flight are both intended as steps towards eventual SpaceX missions to the moon, Mars and deep space.

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