Podcast: Interview with Inspiration4's Commander Jared Isaacman

The billionaire commander of the three-day mission to space talks about his experience and the importance of humans continuing to explore the heavens.

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Rush transcript:

Irene Klotz:

Hi, and welcome to the Check 6 Podcast. I'm Irene Klotz, the Space Editor at Aviation Week, and we have a very special guest today, Jared Isaacman, the CEO and founder of Shift4 Payments, who just returned from a mission he created and commanded, called Inspiration4, a private space charter and fundraiser aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon.

            First off, congratulations. That was truly an amazing thing to be watching, and I hope that it was worth all your time and your money and your effort. I hope you felt that it was a fulfilling experience.

Jared Isaacman:

It absolutely was in every one of those respects, so it was just incredible. I mean, we just all felt so fortunate to be part of it, to be part of so many things, like the inevitable history that SpaceX is going to continue to create after this mission. The fundraising effort for St. Jude surpassing our goal. What we were able to accomplish on orbit, it was just so many things that we'll never forget.

Irene Klotz:

What do you think was the most challenging part of the three-day space flight?

Jared Isaacman:

We didn't really have much that went wrong. So, I guess it would probably be everything that we kind of set out to accomplish on orbit, our timeline. Everything is kind of mapped out, essentially, to the minute. And, we pushed to have a lot, because we wanted to make the most of the time and try and get back as much of the time as we can. I think we set out to do an awful lot and day one on orbit we got a little behind, and then we really pushed. We woke up a little bit earlier and we just pushed to get through it all and got back on track the second day and got it all accomplished.

Irene Klotz:

Did you feel like you had enough time for not having scheduled activities in your timeline, just to take in the experience?

Jared Isaacman:

I think probably everyone would say that, looking back now when we're here on earth, it's like, "Do you wish you had one more view?" Sure. There's no question. On orbit, you felt like any time you looked up, you could see out the window of the coupla, and take it in, but I don't know how much we were, how much opportunities we've really had to absorb.

Irene Klotz:

In hindsight, is there anything that stuck out in the training that you think could have been lessened for your flight, or for future private space travelers and, conversely, anything that you wished that you had had a little more training in?

Jared Isaacman:

I think we were really incredibly well-prepared for this mission. I just started working an outline for a brief that I'll be beginning in, I guess, about a month, regarding the mission and, on a more technical note, breaking everything down from how inspiration for how it all began, through crucial action, through the screening process, through training, everything else and what things were really important, and what things could you maybe done less of? I don't think there's much in the less camp. I think what we got was exactly what we needed. What I mean by that, on orbit, there were big gaps in communication. As a commercial mission, we were not even close to a high priority for government resources.

            In fact, I think there was a lot of critiques of why they weren't more live streams, when people are used to seeing that from NASA on space station. But, we didn't have government resource coverage to do it. We had very small windows. So big gaps in communication coverage. If you didn't have a lot of training and you weren't exposed to so many things that can go wrong, on top of having no coms, you might've had a higher blood pressure under those circumstances where, for us, it was just another LOS period. Let's get back to work. We did have some alerts and alarms that went off at different phases where it was thinking about what you can do to resolve a situation in a very calm, confident way. And that came from training as well. So yeah, I think we were really well adequately prepared for it. I can't think of many things to dial back at all.

Irene Klotz:

Is that brief for SpaceX or for some other purpose?

Jared Isaacman:

I was asked to, I guess, give a lunch lecture to the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. So it's kind of a more technical on about the mission, and what people can maybe learn from it, for future orbital space flight missions.

Irene Klotz:

That's cool. So, would you feel comfortable having your wife, and I know your kids are still really young, but maybe a little bit older kids flying, or do you think that there's a ways to go before that would happen?

Jared Isaacman:

Well, I think it's inevitable. This is what this was all about, was to show that space does not have to remain the exclusive domain of world superpowers. There's a lot of it out there and we've got to get going and start satisfying our curiosity. And of course, in addition to things, we hope to inspire here on Earth, too. But, I'm the first to recognize space is still expensive, and space is still hard, and therefore, every mission, until that cost does come down, and we do find a way to make it even more and more routine, it just has to make a very profound impact on the world. I think that's maybe why our story carried a little better than some of the other ones from this past summer. I would say while this is a fortunate place to go, it wouldn't be really appropriate for my wife or kids in the world of today, but I sure hope it is in the one for tomorrow.

Irene Klotz:

How long do you think it will be before that might come?

Jared Isaacman:

I don't know. I mean SpaceX is, they're building an armada of starships. This is the grandest, most ambitious bet  … for many. And when you're doing it for the many, not the few, so it's going to be in our lifetime, right? Space is going to open up in a pretty material way, not in our lifetime, I'm sure that.

Irene Klotz:

Jared, what was your favorite moment or one or two favorite moments of the mission?

Jared Isaacman:

Oh, that is so hard. It's so hard because, you know, I was just talking to my wife a little bit ago about how I know that none of us have really fully processed, and I don't even think we're close to what we just went through, but I know for me, I was looking at everything as just the mission. I never went into it with any particular moments that I wanted to capture experience, I just wanted it to go well. All I was thinking about was, what is our timeline? What's the next thing we need to accomplish? What's the worst thing that could happen in this moment and what can I do about it? But if I had to single out one or two things, one, it would be like just the happiness of the crew.

            These are people, a year ago that had no, one, didn't know each other, two, had no idea that would have a chance to experience something like this. And they were incredibly happy. I know they're going to take that experience back and share it with others. And then if I had to, the second part is, if I had to look at one particular frame, like one image that I saw that I thought was most impactful to me, it was the moonrise with earth in the frame and it's what made me just really think to myself, we just got it, she's got to keep going. I feel the earliest days of the space program was very much about exploration, pushing boundaries and doing the unthinkable. And, I think for the last couple of decades, as amazing as the contributions have been, it's become an orbiting laboratory, which is so important and we still need to do it, but man, we've got to get that exploration component back into it and get out there. We just know so little about it and our place in all of it.

Irene Klotz:

Would you be up for another flight, perhaps on a Boeing Starliner, or do you feel that your space days now are finished?

Jared Isaacman:

I think my conversations with SpaceX and Elon [Musk] and that if there's a mission that can make a real meaningful contribution to humanity and all of our collective interests in human space exploration, and sure I would be interested in talking this over, but I won't ever go on a joy ride and I would want to make sure it was, like I said, very impactful and have a profound impact on the world. So, I don't know what that is at this point or if there ever will be. And the bar is pretty high, I think, after Inspiration4.

Irene Klotz:

Is there anything that you have learned about as far as recommending crews to fly? I mean, I know you're not an astronaut and neither is Sian, but you both had quite a lot of experience. You especially with your familiarity with flight procedures, for people perhaps with the enthusiasm and technical literacy of Chris and Hayley, make this trip, or do you think you actually need someone in the role of astronaut, commander or pilot?

Jared Isaacman:

Personally, I think every one of the crew members, including our mission specialists and medical officer are real astronauts. They have real work to do and real responsibilities for safety flight. And no question, Hayley put her medical officer's skills to work on that flight. And had we had somebody who was less competent in healthcare, some of the crew members might not have had been able to contribute in the way they did throughout the whole mission. So, can't emphasize enough everybody's contribution to it. I think like having an aviation background was helpful. I think that's why it's a skillset that NASA draws upon quite a bit. Do I think it'll need to be like that forever? No. And are these skills that can be trained? For sure. It might mean that its not six months of training going into mission, maybe it's nine months. Because there're things like crew resource management and checklist discipline, and how do you read and interact with the screens? It might come more natural to us just because we've been doing it for a very long time with our aviation background.

Irene Klotz:

Yeah, I understand, and certainly didn't discount at all the contributions of the mission specialists, just was focusing on the piloting aspects of it. What did you do about your company while you were training and what did all your crew mates do about their jobs while you were training?

Jared Isaacman:

I know that Hayley became essentially the St. Jude ambassador. So she was, instead of lifting the spirits of individual patients, as you know she's been trained as a physician assistant. She was doing it across the entire organization with staff, with the owners and with patients. So that was very accommodating for St. Jude and something Hayley did really well. I believe Chris wound up taking leave of absence with Lockheed, and I think they were very accommodating, as was Dr. Proctor with her teaching duties. For me, I kept fulfilling my role as CEO of Shift4, I have an amazing leadership team to work with. And, it might've meant a little less sleep than I would have liked for some of the nights, but we were able to balance everything.

Irene Klotz:

Thanks. I know your time is short, but also wanted to just ask you a little bit about the inclusion of the TIME Studios program, which I understand started even before Netflix hired the production team. How did that actually come about? Did they contact you after seeing the Super Bowl commercial or did you reach out to find a documentary film partner?

Jared Isaacman:

So the way it began, even before the Super Bowl commercial, so shortly after Inspiration4 was born with SpaceX and I started traveling out there for health screenings and such, the communications team that was managing Inspiration4 was saying, we should be recording all of this. And, it basically came back to me, and I was like, look, I don't think this mission is documentary worthy, and it completely feels inappropriate for me to pay to film myself, I'm not doing that. So if somebody wants to cover this, they're welcome to it. My only ask is that whatever the proceeds are from it, they have to go to St. Jude. So outside of that, I really wasn't much involved other than when it came back to me that, hey, TIME is very interested and they would like to cover it. I think TIME is a great brand and I felt like there would be good trust there. So we were with them for really the first four months, and they were basically saying, well, this is the next step, somebody's got to buy it and that's how you benefit St. Jude, and I know they spoke to a number of streaming services and Netflix prevailed.

Irene Klotz:

Thanks, Jared. And again, congratulations. I hope you have memories for a lifetime.

Jared Isaacman:

I sure do. Thank you so much.

Irene Klotz:

Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to our Check6 Podcast at Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Stitcher and Spotify. Thank you. Bye bye.

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.