SpaceX and the Polaris Program rescheduled the launch of the privately organized Polaris Dawn mission for summer 2023. Polaris Dawn will be the first of three scheduled missions in SpaceX’s private Polaris program.
A businessman named Jared Isaacman will command Polaris Dawn. He previously organized and commanded Inspiration4 as a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and promotion of the Point-of-Sale software provider Shift4 Payments. Isaacman is the CEO of Shift4. The Polaris Dawn mission’s crew also includes pilot Scott “Kidd” Poteet and engineers Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon.
The crew has been training for the Polaris Dawn mission since it was announced a year ago. Training included mission simulations, flights in fighter jets, and even climbing mountains in Ecuador.
Polaris Dawn will attempt to reach the highest altitude achieved by an orbital mission. It has a target apogee, or highest point in the orbit, of 870 miles (1,400 kilometers). Gemini 11 set the previous orbital altitude record of 850 miles (1,368 kilometers) in 1966.
(Yes, Apollo 13 did set an altitude record during the fight to bring the damaged spacecraft back to Earth with its crew still alive, but that was a lunar mission and not a purely Earth-orbit mission.)
The five-day mission will also include the first EVA attempt on a privately organized mission. This EVA will test SpaceX’s EVA suit design. Unlike the bulky and often awkward EVA suits used by NASA, SpaceX’s EVA suits look more slick. SpaceX weirdly failed to put in a bid to provide the EVA suits to NASA, though.
The crew will also conduct biomedical experiments. The experiments include use of a contact lens to measure changes to the astronauts’ eyeballs during flight. Ultrasonic instruments will also monitor the crews’ biometrics and physiology during launch and after splashdown. SpaceX also arranged to test a potentially more accurate method to monitor blood glucose levels and first aid techniques like CPR during the flight.
Technological experiments will include a test of Starlink-based laser communications. SpaceX currently has a contract with NASA to demonstrate satellite-based communications for an active space mission. If the test is successful, it could test communications technologies that could give NASA a valuable alternative to ground-based communications like the Deep Space Network.
The Deep Space Network communicates with NASA’s robotic probes, including missions to Mars and the outer solar system. The two Voyager probes launched in the 1970s can still communicate through the Deep Space Network even though they’ve already entered interstellar space.
The Polaris Program continues to promote donations to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It cited a previous interesting coincidence: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened its first hospital for children the same year that John Glenn flew on the Mercury Program’s Friendship 7 mission in 1962. It says the survival rate for children with cancer in the United States rose from 20% to 80% since then, partly thanks to research conducted at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the free treatments it provides to children.
As importantly, the Polaris Program will conduct valuable biomedical research and technical experiments that could have valuable applications for both long-duration space missions and medical treatments hear on Earth. NASA already promotes valuable spinoffs of research conducted on crewed space missions like the Expeditions on the International Space Station. The Polaris Program’s research will add to the already valuable biomedical research being conducted on the International Space Station.
The Polaris Dawn mission will attempt a new altitude record and update some of the work that was done during the Gemini Program in the 1960s, including testing a new EVA suit that SpaceX could use for future space missions.