Wealthy Entrepreneur to Command Space Mission to Benefit St. Jude — Want to Tag Along?

Wealthy Entrepreneur to Command Space Mission to Benefit St. Jude — Want to Tag Along?

SpaceX announced this afternoon that a wealthy entrepreneur has purchased a four-seat Crew Dragon mission that could launch as early as the end of this year.  Jared Isaacman, founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, is offering the other three seats to everyday people as part of his drive to make space accessible to everyone and benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. One will be chosen at random from among those who contribute to St. Jude through the mission’s website.

Isaacman himself is giving $100 million to St. Jude and hopes to raise “upwards of $200 million or more” for the children’s research hospital started by the late actor Danny Thomas in 1962.  St. Jude President Richard Shadyac pointed out that is the same year the first American orbited the Earth and the hospital similarly has broken boundaries, “making the impossible possible.”

“From the beginning, St. Jude has been at the forefront of innovation and inclusion, leading in cancer research, care and treatment for some of the world’s sickest children regardless of race, ethnicity, beliefs or a family’s ability to pay. This partnership brings two missions together to create one incredible moment in time that will make an impact for years to come on the global effort to cure childhood cancer.”

Isaacman said during a press conference today that he and his family have no personal connection with St. Jude, but he realizes how lucky he has been in life and “an awful lot of families” are not and “we just have to do something about it.”

Jared Isaacman. Credit: SpaceX

The mission is dubbed Inspiration4 reflecting the four crew members and the goal of inspiring support for St. Jude. Isaacman said they will represent the four mission pillars of Leadership, Hope, Generosity, and Prosperity.

Isaacman is Leadership. Hope is a frontline health care worker committed to helping kids with cancer. Generosity is someone chosen at random from those who contribute to St. Jude through the Inspiration4 website (although the Official Rules state no contribution is necessary). Prosperity is an aspiring entrepreneur who starts an online store through Shift4Shop and posts a video explaining why they should be selected. The videos will be judged by a celebrity panel.

In an interview that aired this evening, Isaacman told NBC News that the Hope frontline health care worker is a childhood cancer survivor from St. Jude who is now a medical staffer there.  Submissions for the other two seats must be completed by the end of the month.  Winners will be notified soon thereafter.

Asked if there are any age or health restrictions, Musk laughed that anyone who can ride an “intense” roller coaster like the Hulk in Florida will be fine on Crew Dragon. The Official Rules say, however, that the person must be over 18 years of age at the time of entry, a U.S. person as defined by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and domiciled in the United States, physically and psychologically fit for training and spaceflight, under 6 feet 6 inches in height, and under 250 pounds in weight.

Isaacman will command the mission. At 37, he is already well into his entrepreneurial career having started his own business at 16 and quitting high school, though he later got a bachelor’s degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  He began by creating an easy-to-use payment system for small businesses that grew into what is now Shift4 Payments, which processes $2 billion a year in payments mostly for hotels and restaurants. Along the way, he started flying aircraft including military jets, which one can do as a civilian if properly licensed. He founded Draken International, a defense firm that owns the largest commercial fleet of ex-military aircraft and trains Air Force pilots. Isaacson sold a majority stake in it to Blackstone in 2019. A few months ago, he bought the late Paul Allen’s MIG-29 for himself.

He has set records and competed in races and airshows to raise money for charities including the Make-a-Wish Foundation. In the NBC News interview, he said he decided to raise money for St. Jude this time on the premise that if St. Jude succeeds, Make-a-Wish no longer will be needed.

A Forbes profile last year quoted a friend as saying “His personality is ‘see it, conquer it and be the best at it.” Flying into space apparently is the next frontier to conquer.

During a press conference today, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said Isaacman gets to call the shots on what exactly the mission will entail, but at the moment they are assuming it will last between two and four days and are targeting launch by the end of this year.  It will not dock with the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX’s rockets and spacecraft are reusable.  In this case, the Crew Dragon spacecraft currently docked to the ISS will be used for Inspiration4. Named Resilience, it took a four-person crew to ISS for NASA in November and they will return in it to Earth this spring.

Crew Dragon was developed through a public-private partnership with NASA where the agency and SpaceX shared the development costs and the company retains ownership of the system. NASA simply buys crew transportation services from SpaceX as it once did from Russia after the space shuttle was terminated and it could no longer launch astronauts itself.

From the beginning, NASA’s goal for this “commercial crew” program was to be just one of many customers for these services.  Inspiration4 fits right in with those plans. Kathy Lueders, now the head of NASA’s entire human spaceflight enterprise and previously manager of the commercial crew program, tweeted the agency’s support.

Today’s announcement is the second in a week about private astronauts flying on SpaceX Crew Dragons.  On January 26, Axiom Space revealed the names of the four crew members it has arranged to fly a Crew Dragon to the ISS in January 2022.

Another company that brokers flights by private astronauts, Space Adventures, announced a deal with SpaceX a year ago to arrange another private tourist flight.

Musk, Isaacman and the people at Axiom and Space Adventures are among those who advocate for the “democratization” of space where anyone should be able to make the trip.  It is a long-held dream of space enthusiasts, but cost is a distinct impediment. Isaacman is footing the entire bill for Inspiration4 and declined to say how much it is, but the Axiom customers reportedly are paying $55 million per person.

Musk’s goal is to send millions of people to Mars.  That requires a sharp reduction in costs. Today he said Inspiration4 is a step in that direction. “It is only through missions like this that we’re able to bring the cost down over time and make space accessible to all.”

In the Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments of 2004, Congress created a permissive “informed consent” regulatory regime for private astronaut flights. Companies only must notify passengers of the risks. It is up to the individual to decide whether or not to climb aboard.  Asked about the risks today, Isaacman said he was in Antarctica a year ago climbing Mt. Vinson and by comparison “I’ll take Dragon any day.”

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation oversees those regulations.  George Nield, who retired in 2018 after 15 years in that office, 10 as its head, also cheered the news today.

The idea in 2004 was that a heavy hand of regulation could stifle the nascent commercial human spaceflight business so during a “learning period,” the FAA was prohibited from creating new regulations. The learning period, or moratorium, was initially set at 8 years, but it has taken much longer for U.S. commercial human spaceflight to get going.  The deadline was extended and now expires in 2023.

There are signs that some in Congress already are beginning to rethink what is needed. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the incoming chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees the FAA, said in November it might be time to take a fresh look. In questions for the record for Secretary of Transportation-designate Pete Buttigieg after his nomination hearing last month, then-committee chairman (and incoming ranking member) Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) asked Buttigieg to commit to working with Congress “to evaluate the best path forward to maintain safety as well as foster the growth of this emerging industry.”  The Senate will vote on Buttigieg’s nomination tomorrow.


Note: this article has been updated.

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