By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business
Jared Isaacman — the billionaire CEO of payments processing company Shift 4 — is buying three more flights with SpaceX, the first of which is scheduled for this year and could put Isaacman and SpaceX on track to travel deeper into space than any human has traveled in a half-century.
The first flight in the series of missions, which are being called “Polaris” after the North Star, is planned for late this year and will last up to five days and include a crew of Isaacman and three other people. It’s expected to travel out to the Van Allen radiation belt, which has an inner band that stretches from about 400 to 6,000 miles above Earth, in part to help the crew research how radiation in space affects the human body. Radiation remains a serious concern for spaceflights to the moon and Mars, as SpaceX says it aims to do, because they would require prolonged exposure to radiation, which can lead to an “increased risk of cancer and degenerative diseases” and other long-term impacts, according to NASA.
When asked on a press call Monday, Isaacman said the Gemini missions of the 20th century, which set altitude records at the time, are a guidepost for how high the first Polaris mission will travel. Gemini missions reached as high as about 850 miles — or about three times higher than where the International Space Station orbits. Isaacman declined to share a specific altitude for the flight.
During that mission, the crew will conduct a spacewalk, a first for anyone traveling aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule. Isaacman made the announcement on NBC’s Today Show on Monday morning and in an interview with the Washington Post.
Isaacman, who gained international attention when he purchased the first SpaceX all-tourism flight dubbed “Inspiration 4,” said that the first Dragon mission will be followed by a second Dragon mission shortly thereafter. Those two missions will pave the way for the first-ever crewed mission on SpaceX’s forthcoming Starship rocket, the one Elon Musk hopes will one-day ferry people to Mars.
“We’re gonna go farther into space than humans have gone since we last walked on the moon,” he told the Today show.
It’s not clear if all this will go according to plan, nor has SpaceX said whether it will need to complete additional testing before Isaacman can make his trek to deep space. SpaceX also has not addressed what if any updates Crew Dragon will need to complete the mission safely. So far, the spacecraft has carried astronauts only on trips to low-Earth orbit, or the area of space directly surrounding Earth. The Inspiration 4 mission marked the highest Crew Dragon has flown thus far, at at a roughly 360-mile altitude, and Monday’s announcement indicated the first Polaris mission will travel at least twice that far.
It’s not clear how much these missions will cost Isaacman, and he declined to comment on the matter Monday morning. He also did not reveal how much he paid for the Inspiration 4 mission last year, though he said he paid less than $200 million.
“We know space is expensive,” Isaacman said when asked about the costs of the Polaris program during a media call, adding that it’s already “fully funded.”
“Costs will come down just as they have for any other groundbreaking technology,” he said. “This is a contribution from both SpaceX and myself towards the important goals we want to achieve with the Polaris program.”
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