The next two astronaut missions SpaceX launches will be private affairs given current schedules.
Elon Musk’s company launched the Crew 6 mission for NASA early Thursday morning (March 2), sending four astronauts aboard the Dragon capsule Endeavor to the International Space Station (ISS).
As the name suggests, Crew-6 is SpaceX’s sixth contracted astronaut flight to the station for NASA (and the company’s seventh for the agency overall, including the landmark Demo-2 test flight in 2020). SpaceX plans to add to that tally with Crew-7 in August or so, but this upcoming mission will follow two crewed private flights if all goes according to plan.
Related: Meet the SpaceX Crew 6 astronauts
First up is Ax-2, which is currently targeting a May launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is operated by Houston-based company Axiom Space, whose Ax-1 mission with SpaceX in April 2022 was the first-ever all-private crewed flight to the on-orbit laboratory.
Ax-2 will send four people to the ISS aboard a Dragon capsule: investor and paying customer John Shoffner; Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali AlQarni, both members of Saudi Arabia’s first class of astronauts; and Peggy Whitson, a record-breaking former NASA astronaut. Whitson, a consultant for Axiom Space, will lead the 12-day mission.
Barnawi and AlQarni will be the first Saudis to travel to the ISS, and Barnawi will be the first woman from the Kingdom to ever reach the final frontier.
The second of these consecutive privately crewed missions is Polaris Dawn, which is expected to launch from KSC in July.
Polaris Dawn is funded and led by billionaire technology entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, who in September 2021 also commanded Inspiration4, the first-ever fully private manned mission into Earth orbit.
Polaris Dawn will use the same Dragon capsule that flew on Inspiration4, a spacecraft called Resilience. The upcoming mission will also be a free flyer; it will not meet with the ISS. But Polaris Dawn will fly higher than Inspiration4 in Earth orbit, aiming to get a maximum of 870 miles (1,400 kilometers) above our planet. That would break the record for the highest crewed orbital mission ever; The current mark is 850 miles (1,368 km), set by NASA’s Gemini 11 in 1966.
Polaris Dawn – the first flight in the ambitious private Polaris program (opens in new tab) – will also push the limits in other ways. For example, the mission aims to conduct at least one spacewalk, which would be a first for a private astronaut flight.
Joining Isaacman on Polaris Dawn is mission pilot Scott “Kidd” Poteet and engineers Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon.
SpaceX is, of course, gearing up for more than just those two private astronaut flights. For example, the company will continue to expand its massive and ever-expanding Starlink constellation over the coming weeks and months, and is preparing to unveil its giant Starship Mars rocket.
SpaceX intends to launch Starship’s first-ever orbital test flight later this month from Starbase, the company’s South Texas facility. The prototype vehicle that will make this flight cleared its last major hurdle before liftoff on February 9 by successfully testing 31 of the 33 Raptor engines on its giant first stage booster.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there (opens in new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaelwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).