SpaceX gearing up to launch 2 private astronaut missions

The private Ax-1 mission launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on April 8, 2022. Ax-2 is currently scheduled to lift off in May 2023.
The private Ax-1 mission launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on April 8, 2022. Ax-2 is currently scheduled to lift off in May 2023. (Image credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The next two astronaut missions that SpaceX launches will be private affairs, if current schedules hold.

Elon Musk's company launched the Crew-6 mission for NASA early Thursday morning (March 2), sending four astronauts toward the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the Dragon capsule Endeavour.

As its 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, counting the landmark Demo-2 test flight in 2020). SpaceX plans to add to that tally with Crew-7 in August or thereabouts, but that coming mission will follow on the heels of two private crewed flights, if all goes according to plan.

Related: Meet the SpaceX Crew-6 astronauts

First up is Ax-2, which is currently targeting a liftoff in May from NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It will be 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 orbiting lab.

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 of whom are members of the Saudi Arabia's first astronaut class; and Peggy Whitson, a record-setting former NASA astronaut. Whitson, who's a consultant for Axiom Space, will command 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 ever to reach the final frontier.

The second of these back-to-back private crewed missions is Polaris Dawn, which is tentatively slated to launch from KSC in July.

Polaris Dawn is bankrolled and led by billionaire tech entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, who also commanded Inspiration4, the first-ever all-private crewed mission to Earth orbit, in September 2021. 

Polaris Dawn will use the same Dragon capsule that flew on Inspiration4, a spacecraft called Resilience. The coming mission will also be a free flyer; it will not meet up with the ISS. But Polaris Dawn will go higher in Earth orbit than Inspiration4, aiming to get a maximum of 870 miles (1,400 kilometers) above our planet. That would break the record for the highest-ever crewed orbital mission; 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 — will push the envelope in other ways as well. 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 will be mission pilot Scott "Kidd" Poteet and engineers Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon. 

SpaceX is prepping for more than just those two private astronaut flights, of course. The company will continue to build out its giant and ever-growing Starlink constellation over the coming weeks and months, for example, and it's getting ready to debut its huge Starship Mars rocket.

SpaceX aims to launch the first-ever orbital test flight of Starship as soon as this month from Starbase, the company's facility in South Texas. The prototype vehicle that will conduct that flight cleared its last big prelaunch hurdle on Feb. 9, successfully test-firing 31 of the 33 Raptor engines on its huge first-stage booster.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook. 

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.