Billionaire Jared Isaacman talks about the origin of the Polaris program and its impact on spaceflight

Yesterday billionaire and private astronaut Jared Isaacman announced plans to fly in space again on another SpaceX mission. His next flight, targeting the end of the year, will take him even further into space than his last flight with the company. It will also be the first in a series of three manned spaceflight missions it is funding with SpaceX, called the Polaris program.

Shift4 Payments creator Isaacman is perhaps best known for funding an entire flight on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which took him and three other private flyers on a three-day trip to orbit. earthly. Called Inspiration4, the mission aimed to show how ordinary people — not just NASA and government astronauts — can train and fly in space.

This time, Isaacman is heading into space with some of his closest colleagues, including two SpaceX engineers and Scott “Kidd” Poteet, who served as Inspiration4’s mission director. And for this flight, it won’t be just any space camping trip. For the first of three missions, Polaris Dawn, the four-person crew that includes Isaacman, will perform the first-ever commercial spacewalk, with a new suit that SpaceX is currently developing. To exit, the crew will open a hatch on Dragon while everyone wears a costume, exposing the entire crew to space. Then a flyer will leave the vehicle to perform the spacewalk.

It’s a much more complex mission than Inspiration4, especially since Isaacman announced his intention to fly Polaris Dawn into the highest Earth orbit ever. The edge spoke with Isaacman and Poteet about the recent announcement and their thoughts on taking on such an enterprising mission.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

I’d like to start by hearing how your experience with Inspiration4 led to this next phase of missions. When did the Polaris talks really start and how did they evolve into the program you announced today?

Isaacman: There have been some pre-launch discussions where there has been some collaboration on how we can essentially embark on a private space program that will ultimately lead to the first crewed launch of Starship. We didn’t really flesh it out completely and didn’t hit the targets we really wanted to hit before we got back from Inspiration4. At some point, you really had to just focus on the Inspiration4 objectives and get it right in order to even get the opportunity for those extra missions.

I will say that coming back from Inspiration4, I felt like the bar was really high – that we really achieved quite a bit. And then to go back, and to really get into this business, it just had to be very impactful and make a difference to what we’d like to accomplish in space.

With Inspiration4, it was as if, apart from the dome, much of the material had already been designed and tested for the mission. With this flight, it’s different. There seems to be a lot of technology still to be developed, and there’s inherently more risk given the spacewalk. So I wonder how that affected your decision-making process when you decided to go ahead with this.

Isaacman: I think you have to believe that each of the goals is important to achieving the larger ambitions of opening up human spaceflight to everyone and making humanity a space civilization. If you’re going to have a presence on the Moon or Mars, you’ll probably want to get out of your habitat or vehicle and do some work. You’re going to need a lot of space suits to be able to do this. So I think a spacewalk is an important element in terms of Starship’s big programming ambitions.

SpaceX’s prototype spacecraft on the launch mound in Boca Chica, Texas.
Image: Polaris Dawn/John Kraus

While each of these things carries some degree of risk, they will all be calculated or mitigated to the extent possible, as we are not going to be flying any component of this mission unless you believe you can successfully do so.

In terms of hardware and software changes, I don’t think you’re talking about major changes. There will be some changes from a life support and consumables perspective. There will be some software changes, and then our payload and some of the technologies that we’re going to demonstrate, like Starlink, will be different. But I don’t think you’re talking about drastic changes in vehicle design.

No drastic changes, but for example someone told me that if you open the door to the void, you’ll probably want to test Dragon components in the void as well. I’m just curious about this added layer of risk and new things that need to be done; I think the basic question is: is it a bit scary?

Isaacman: First of all, Dragon was designed from the ground up to be able to vent into the void. It was an emergency ability in the vehicle since its first flight. This capability existed when we piloted Inspiration4; we certainly didn’t because we had no intention of going into space.

I don’t think any of us are afraid of this operation, any more than any other element of manned spaceflight. There’s so much confidence in the SpaceX team here. I mean, I’ve said this before, but it’s the team that lands rockets on ships, and they’ve done that some 90 times. And nobody else has done it once, so that inspires a lot of confidence, not to mention the fact that they personally sent me into orbit and brought me back safely, and that also inspires great confidence.

Poteet: I would call it more excitement than fear. A perfect example is that we just met with the suit team to get a brief update on the development of the spacesuit, and what they were able to show us is just another testament to the skills and the professionalism of this team. We have full confidence in what they will be able to produce and they will involve us throughout this development. And that will help us have the competence to carry out this mission.

You mentioned that we know more about the costume. Is there a timeline you can give us when we get more details or look at this thing?

Isaacman: I don’t think we have a specific timeline at this time, but like Inspiration4, you should expect periodic updates throughout the mission. I know we discussed this during the announcement earlier today, we are planning to have a dedicated Science, Research and Technology update a little further down the line. You know, this might be a good opportunity to share a bit more about wetsuit development.

You were one of [a few] billionaires to go to space last year, and there’s been a lot of talk about how that money is spent on space travel and whether or not it’s worth it. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, especially since you’re probably spending a lot of money on a lot of new missions.

Isaacman: All of the missions in 2021 were incredibly exciting, weren’t they? That we’re even living in this world right now – to see this happen as often as we have – what a good thing it is that human spaceflight is returning to the United States after a nearly 10 year hiatus year. So in that regard, everything is fine.

I would argue that these missions are not all created equal. Each of them had different goals. I think that’s really important when people measure their effectiveness and the contributions they’ve made to society in general. One thing is certain, private funding will reduce the cost of government missions, which benefits all taxpayers.

I would say it’s a question of balance, isn’t it? I’ve been pretty consistent about this throughout Inspiration4. You can make progress for a better world tomorrow without ignoring today’s problems. I can’t speak to the other missions you referred to. I don’t know if they conveyed that message as well as we did, but I know it’s a message that we are very excited about. That’s why we were able to raise so much money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It’s a passion that continues to exist now with everyone on the Polaris program. We can do both.

I think at any point in history we could have hit the pause button and said “why are we doing this? Why are we spending all this money building these awful cell phone towers so the rich on Wall Street can have their car phones and look unpleasant driving in traffic? And then you move that clock forward 30, 40 years and everyone is connected in a different way, which has definitely saved lives. We don’t know what the future totally holds for us. But I think it’s definitely worth learning and seeing what we can discover there without turning our backs on the problems we have here on Earth.

You mentioned a lot of human health research intentions in this mission, and there were a lot of comparisons with, say, the Gemini missions, except this one is privately funded. I’m curious what you expect from this trip that you think will be different from what NASA has collected in the past?

Isaacman: I imagine NASA would be the first to say that they have a whole list of requests for payload flight, experiments and in-orbit research. It’s not like everything we hope to learn about microgravity has been exhausted. The reality is that universities and institutions are lining up to get some of their experiences on this mission, some especially more than even trips to the space station.

The radiation profile north of 1400 kilometers is significantly different from that at 400 kilometers. So if you have any experiments, or if you’ve hypothetically developed a vest that can provide a countermeasure to radiation exposure, you’d be more inclined to want to fly it on Polaris Dawn.

The reality is that we have a team, basically a committee, that sort of prioritizes the list of requests. We probably have three times as many partner educational institutions on Polaris as we had on Inspiration4, so now it’s basically like a prioritization exercise.

Ryan H. Bowman