The first private spacewalks reveal complex science objectives during the Polaris Dawn mission

Four private astronauts launching with SpaceX in March under the Polaris program plan to conduct dozens of scientific and research experiments designed to study human health and plant growth in space.

Founded by businessman and pilot Jared Isaacman, the Polaris program’s first mission, known as Polaris Dawn, will launch aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft no earlier than March 2023. It will be the first time a crew of non-government astronauts will performed a spacewalk in the vacuum of space.

Isaacman will join retired US Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Poteet and two SpaceX employees, Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon. Both Gillis and Menon have worked with NASA astronauts launching with SpaceX and will now experience a Crew Dragon flight themselves.

Like the Inspiration 4 mission, which Isaacman launched last year with three other civilians, upcoming Polaris missions will also involve science and research that will take advantage of the low-gravity environment.

On Monday, the Polaris program revealed it is partnering with 23 research institutes and universities to send potentially 38 experiments on the five-day mission. These partners include NASA, scientifically supported by SpaceX and numerous leading medical institutions and universities.

“Our science and research program will improve the knowledge base for future long-duration space flights that will take us back to the Moon and to Mars; as well as will advance our knowledge and understanding of humanity here on Earth,” Isaacman said in a statement. “The Polaris Dawn team along with SpaceX’s outstanding science and research team cast a wide net to find the best experiments to fly with us.”

While the mission schedule has yet to be released, including how many of the four private astronauts will be performing spacewalks, the crew will not only enjoy the breathtaking views, but will also participate in many experiments themselves.

“We will make every minute of our 5-day mission count,” Isaacman said in a tweet.

The crew will test ultrasound imaging to monitor changes in the body, including taking 3-D images of the eye to understand the effects of microgravity on vision. The University of Colorado Boulder plans to study eye pressure in astronauts by having them wear smart contact lenses.

Menon shared a video on Twitter showing what the contacts look like when in place.

Other experiments include studying bone and muscle loss caused by weightlessness, a known problem for astronauts living and working in space.

A glucose monitoring experiment by SpaceX will study how astronauts can manage their diabetes while in space.

During the five-day spaceflight, the crew will be almost 870 miles above Earth, about four times higher than the International Space Station. This orbit will take the Crew Dragon spacecraft through part of the Van Allen radiation belt, allowing research into how space radiation affects human health.

USC’s Keck School of Medicine plans to investigate whether ambient space radiation can be used to obtain X-ray images during spaceflight to diagnose astronauts in the future.

While in space, some astronauts describe seeing flashes of light while their eyes are closed, caused by exposure to radiation. NASA proposed to take radiation measurements during the Polaris Dawn mission because of its unique orbit to study the light flash phenomenon.

Some research will be conducted after the Dragon falls, ending the mission.

Within hours of the astronauts landing, they will undergo an MRI of the brain for research at the Medical University of South Carolina to monitor possible changes after their space flight.

Polaris Dawn launched in March 2023 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Closer to launch, the program will share a final list of experiments approved to fly.

The final flight of the Polaris program will be the first human spaceflight of SpaceX’s newest vehicle, the Starship.

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