SpaceX is doing it again.
One year ago -- to the month, if not exactly to the day -- Elon Musk's pioneering satellite-launching company announced plans to enter the space tourism business as well. Announcing its arrival with a Super Bowl commercial for "Inspiration4," SpaceX described how it would launch the first-ever privately crewed space mission, with Shift4 Payments (FOUR 1.13%) CEO Jared Isaacman piloting a Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft on what turned out to be a three-day jaunt into space and around the Earth.
One year later, The Washington Post is reporting Isaacman just reserved three more flights with SpaceX -- two more Falcon 9/Crew Dragon combos, to be followed by a privately crewed mission that will take SpaceX's new Starship up for a spin.
Announcing Polaris Dawn
Isaacman is calling these three missions the "Polaris Project," and has named the first mission "Polaris Dawn," planning to fly it higher than any previous manned space launch since the Apollo program that sent astronauts to the moon. Over the course of "up to five days in orbit," Polaris Dawn will include one or more spacewalks. Two SpaceX engineers and the former mission director for Inspiration4 will join Isaacman on this flight, and the target date is set for the fourth quarter of 2022 or later.
The second mission has no set itinerary yet. The third will be the first flight by Starship with a crew aboard.
How much does it cost to rent a spaceship? Or three?
SpaceX did not disclose what it will be charging Isaacman for any of the flights. However, the Post suggested that it might cost "several hundred million dollars" in total, noting that Inspiration4 cost "less than $200 million."
On a media conference call, Isaacman admitted that Polaris' cost will be partially covered by "a contribution from ... SpaceX." That makes sense for a few reasons.
First, one objective of Polaris will be to test laser communication links between spacecraft and SpaceX's constellation of Starlink internet satellites to confirm the system can be used for interplanetary communication (e.g., between Earth and spaceships traveling to Mars).
Second, Isaacman's planned spacewalk(s) will give SpaceX a chance to test out new extravehicular spacesuits, as well as demonstrate astronauts' ability to exit and reenter a Crew Dragon spacecraft that has no airlock. This, too, is valuable experience that SpaceX should be willing to subsidize.
Third, Isaacman hopes to "advance long-duration human spaceflight capabilities" through the Polaris Project flights, "toward the ultimate goal of facilitating Mars exploration." Mars is, of course, an idea close to Elon Musk's heart. So, again, it makes sense for SpaceX to pay part of the cost.
Fourth, by expanding its experience in spaceflights crewed by non-NASA astronauts, SpaceX is building itself a brand new business in space tourism. As such, it makes sense that the company would be willing to bear at least some of the cost of testing this concept.
What does the Polaris Project mean for investors?
This fourth aim of the Polaris Project should most interest investors. Here's why.
In his recent hour-long presentation on the progress of Starship, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk observed that "on a marginal cost-to-launch basis [that] doesn't count fixed costs," Starship could cost "as little as ... a million dollars per flight." But even after fixed costs are considered, he said, "I am highly confident [the cost] would be less than $10 million all in."
SpaceX says a human-rated Starship might carry as many as 100 passengers aboard (instead of 100 to 150 tons of cargo). Divide a $10 million all-in launch cost by 100 potential ticket-buying tourists, and you arrive at a potential $100,000 ticket cost for Starship to carry tourists on sightseeing orbits around Earth, trips to the moon and back, or visits to the International Space Station (or other stations yet to be built).
Granted, Musk admits Starship must launch frequently and spread out its fixed costs among many, many launches to get its prices down to this level because "the more launches that happen, the lower the total ... cost per flight would be." He also noted that Starship is at least "two or three years" away from being able to establish that kind of launch cadence.
But if and when Starship reaches that point, $10 million per flight or $100,000 per ticket are "crazy low numbers by space standards," says Musk, and "ridiculously good compared to" what any other company is able to charge. They're particularly ridiculously good relative to the $450,000 that Virgin Galactic (SPCE -2.05%) is charging people to experience a few minutes of weightlessness on suborbital rides aboard its spaceplane -- and probably a lot cheaper than what Blue Origin charges for 10-minute suborbital rides aboard its New Shepard rocket.
If SpaceX can offer space tourism flights that last hours or days, for less money than Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin charge for flights measured in minutes, SpaceX will easily dominate the new market for space tourism and create for itself a whole new revenue stream with which to fund its Mars colonization ambitions.
If Starship works, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin should be quaking in their space boots.