Humans on the Polaris Dawn space mission will be like lab rats for radiation

Polaris Dawn will carry out a list of historic firsts, including the first commercial spacewalk.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the Polaris Dawn spacewalk.Polaris Program

On Wednesday, organizers of the first-ever private orbital spaceflight to the International Space Station announced a revised launch date. Still, the four-person Axiom crew that will leave Earth atop a SpaceX rocket on April 3 will not be doing any spacewalking. No, that historic first will be achieved during the second all-civilian trip to orbital space.

Polaris Dawn will achieve several historic milestones, including the first commercial spacewalk after its estimated November 2022 launch. The free-floating trip outside the crew capsule won't be merely for kicks. The crew members will take on the role of space lab subject — their bodies will be measured to gauge the effects of off-world radiation on human health.

Inspiration4 billionaire aims to advance human spaceflight

To date, government agencies have carried out every spacewalk. The vast majority have taken place outside the International Space Station and are conducted by astronauts and cosmonauts from NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency, and Japan's space agency, JAXA.

The Polaris Dawn team aims to break this mold by carrying out its spacewalk from a relatively tiny SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule orbiting Earth. The crew will then go on to reach a record-high orbital altitude. 

Jared Isaacman, the billionaire behind SpaceX's first "all-civilian" space mission, Inspiration4, revealed the Polaris Program last month. It aims to advance human spaceflight capabilities simultaneously as raising funds and awareness for causes on Earth.

Humans on the Polaris Dawn space mission will be like lab rats for radiation
As with Inspiration4, the Polaris Dawn mission will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Source: Polaris Program/John Kraus

Polaris will be three separate missions, including two orbital spaceflights and the first crewed launch of SpaceX's Starship launch vehicle. "The Polaris Program is an important step in advancing human space exploration while helping to solve problems through innovative technology here on Earth," Isaacman explained in a February statement.

Isaacman, the 39-year-old founder of online payment processing company Shift4, was the commander for last September's Inspiration4 mission. He will be the commander for the Polaris Program's first mission, Polaris Dawn. Inspiration4 was the first time an entire crew of civilians reached orbital space, a massive milestone for human spaceflight and space tourism. The mission saw Isaacman and a crew of three others launch on a Crew Dragon capsule atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on September 15, 2021, before spending three days orbiting Earth.

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Now, Isaacman and a new crew aim to take things leaps and bounds further with the upcoming launch of Polaris Dawn.

Polaris Dawn: the highest Earth orbit in history and the first commercial spacewalk

The Polaris Dawn mission will take Isaacman and three crewmates — pilot Scott "Kidd" Poteet, mission specialist Sarah Gillis, and medical officer Anna Menon — up into orbit. This time, they aim to achieve several historic milestones while they're up there.

"On Polaris Dawn, we endeavor to achieve the highest Earth orbit ever flown," Isaacman said in February. The current record is held by NASA's Gemini 11 astronauts, Charles Conrad and Richard Gordon, in 1966, both of whom reached an orbit of 853 miles above Earth.

Humans on the Polaris Dawn space mission will be like lab rats for radiation
The Polaris Dawn Crew, (from left to right) Sarah Gillis, Scott "Kidd" Poteet, Anna Menon, and Jared Isaacman. Source: Polaris Program/John Kraus

Before reaching those heights, at approximately 300 miles above Earth, two of the Polaris Dawn crewmembers will attempt the first commercial extravehicular activity (EVA), or spacewalk, in history.

SpaceX's Dragon capsule doesn't feature an airlock, so the entire crew will have to get into their spacesuits as the cabin is depressurized for the spacewalk. The crew will wear newly-designed, pressurized SpaceX spacesuits.

When the Polaris Dawn team reaches its peak record altitude, the crew capsule will pass through parts of the Van Allen radiation belt, which are made up of highly energetic charged particles that originate from the solar wind. This will allow the team and ground control to carry out one of its mission objectives: to collect data on the effects of space radiation on human health.

Humans on the Polaris Dawn space mission will be like lab rats for radiation
The Polaris Dawn mission badge. Source: Polaris Program/John Kraus

Not only that, but Polaris Dawn will also be the first mission to test SpaceX's Starlink satellite network for laser-based communications in space, another part of the Polaris Program's plans for advancing human spaceflight capabilities. 

The Polaris Program is named after the Polaris constellation, most commonly known as the "North Star." The program chose that name because it aims to be a guiding light, helping future space missions and people here on Earth toward a better future. In its latest update, the program announced that it was sending medical supplies and resources to Poland to aid Ukrainian refugees amid the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. A Ukrainian flag will also make the trip to orbit.

If all goes well, Polaris Dawn will launch later this year. The second Polaris mission will likely set several new milestone goals based on the learning of the first mission. The third launch will be the first human spaceflight of SpaceX's Starship, and its date will be set after SpaceX conducts the uncrewed maiden flight of the reusable rocket, which will launch at a fraction of the cost of NASA's own Moon-bound SLS launch vehicle.

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