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Inspiration4: How Jared Isaacman's kindergarten space dream became a pioneering SpaceX mission

Shift4 Payments founder and CEO Jared Isaacman will command a SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceflight in late 2021 and is donating three seats to fly with him in support of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
Shift4 Payments founder and CEO Jared Isaacman will command a SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceflight in late 2021 and is donating three seats to fly with him in support of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. (Image credit: SpaceX)

Self-described space geek Jared Isaacman says he always dreamed about going to space, and he feels fortunate to be at the helm of the Inspiration4 private mission to Earth orbit that SpaceX will launch late this year. 

His next goal is to help the mission give back to worthy causes on Earth, he said in an interview with Space.com. 

Isaacman has a passion for aviation and spaceflight, as his activities over the past 20 years show. He has done a high-speed circumnavigation of the world and flown in numerous air shows, and he even owns a defense aerospace company, Draken International, which trains jet pilots for the U.S. military. 

Related: A behind-the-scenes look at SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule (photos)

Isaacman said he has accrued about 6,000 hours piloting various flight aircraft, with some of that time including stressful situations such as flight formations and dealing with contingencies. "I've certainly had my fair share of abnormal procedures that I've had to run through in emergencies and such, so I think that's all going to be beneficial" for the Inspiration4 experience, he said.

Isaacman caught the space bug as a kid in Westfield, New Jersey, a state home to astronauts ranging from moonwalker Buzz Aldrin to the twin space station astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. He recalls being in kindergarten at Wilson Elementary School looking at high-resolution picture books of the space shuttle. 

"I did tell my kindergarten teacher I would go to space someday, and she said she'd be watching," Isaacman recalled. But as he grew up, he recognized space would be another frontier of challenge entirely, even given all his aviation accomplishments. "The odds of becoming a NASA astronaut — you have a better chance of getting hit by lightning," he said. 

That may not be strictly true: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the lightning-strike risk at 0.0002%, and 11 of the record 18,300 applicants in the 2017 NASA astronaut class eventually graduated to full astronaut status, for a success rate of 0.06%. But Isaacman is right that the chances are low.

He kept his hopes up, however, inspired — like many of us — by movies and shows such as "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" that depict vast numbers of ordinary people going into space. "Who hasn't imagined themselves cruising around in an X-wing?" Isaacman said, referring to a famous "Star Wars" ship piloted by hero Luke Skywalker, among others. "I do believe that that's a world that we're all going to live in at some point, but it might be a little bit down the road."

When Isaacman got the chance to buy four seats aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for the Inspiration4 mission, he decided to be "really thoughtful" about picking the three people who would go with him. Recently, it was announced that Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, would join him. Arceneaux is a childhood survivor of bone cancer and was treated at St. Jude when she was 10 years old.

"You've got a great humanitarian representing our mission and spirit of hope," Isaacman said, noting that Arceneaux is a frontline healthcare worker.

The other two seats were made available through separate contests on the Inspiration4 website. One seat, named for "Generosity," will be awarded from a draw from people who donated to St. Jude. The second seat, "Prosperity," will come from a set of entrepreneurs showcasing their business ideas on the Shift4Shop ecommerce platform; Isaacman is CEO of Shift4Shop. (If you didn't apply, it's now too late; entries closed Feb. 28.)

"I certainly hope that in the future, [spaceflight] can be a bunch of buddies going up in space together," Isaacman said of his future seatmate choices. "That's the world you want to work towards, where it becomes an everyday thing … As soon as I knew I would have the opportunity to command the first all-civilian mission to space, my mind immediately gravitated towards ways that can be super-symbolic of a step in this direction."

Isaacman said he's proud to fly on a SpaceX Crew Dragon for this mission, because he believes Elon Musk's company "reinvigorated the world's interest in space" following the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. The shuttle ferried hundreds of astronauts to space between 1981 and its 2011 retirement. After that, the next crewed mission to Earth orbit that launched from the United States was SpaceX's Demo-2 mission in May 2020.

In photos: SpaceX's historic Demo-2 test flight with astronauts

Some of the shuttle's crews included a handful of non-professional astronauts drawn from Congress, companies that furnished payload specialists and the winner of a teacher-in-space competition. However, the teacher selectee, Christa McAuliffe, died along with her six crewmates in the Challenger explosion in January 1986, and NASA subsequently focused on flying government astronauts. 

A few other space tourists, including some U.S. entrepreneurs, made it to orbit aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, but efforts at more space tourism in the U.S. are still in their infancy as companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin pursue the market. With Inspiration4, SpaceX may well become the first of this new private set to get tourists into space. (Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are developing vehicles for suborbital space tourism, whereas Crew Dragon goes all the way to orbit.)

Looking at the range of tourism options, Isaacman said he always felt "there was no question it was going to be SpaceX," as Crew Dragon is already flying crewed missions to the International Space Station for NASA. "They're leading the path," he said.

Training for Inspiration4 will draw upon the "NASA-approved curriculum" to get new astronauts ready for spaceflight, Isaacman said. While government astronauts typically spend at least two years getting ready for a space station flight, Inspiration4's training timeline is much shorter. Crew Dragon will zoom around Earth by itself after a planned launch in October, so the crew members will need no training on space station systems or spacewalks, Isaacman noted.

Isaacman also plans to carry on NASA's tradition of putting astronauts into isolated, challenging environments before flight. Typical environments for NASA trainees may include the woods, caves or underwater. 

Related: NASA's undersea 'asteroid' mission NEEMO 16 in photos

Isaacman will bring his own crew into the mountains. "It will get us all super uncomfortable and [in] close quarters and hopefully in snowy conditions, because I definitely want to make sure we all get along really well under those circumstances here on Earth before we go off in space together," he said.

Isaacman noted that the connection to St. Jude will be a defining theme of his flight. "I've been very lucky in life; you really don't get to a position that I'm fortunate enough to be in without the ball bouncing your way a couple times," he said. "These families [at St. Jude] were dealt horrible hands. They're going through what no one should ever have to go through. It's immense heartache, and the sad part is many of those kids will not grow up to any of the experiences that I've been lucky enough to have in life. We've just got to do something about that."

Even if you aren't lucky enough to snag a seat, more fundraising opportunities for St. Jude will come for different kinds of spaceflight opportunities, Isaacman noted. One of his goals is to carry some payloads for science teachers on his flight. While more details will be announced in the months to come, Isaacman hopes to exceed the $200 million fundraising goal he set for St. Jude through his mission. He also donated $100 million from his own funds.

"I want there to be an awful lot of other kindergarteners who grow up and want to go and become astronauts, except that I'd like them to have a really good chance of [that] being able to happen," Isaacman said. 

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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