Podcast: Interview with Inspiration4’s Civilian Commander

Listen in as Aviation Week editors talk with Jared Isaacman, the founder and CEO of Shift4Payments who has chartered a SpaceX crew Dragon orbital mission that he will command.

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Jen DiMascio:             Hi and welcome to the Check 6 Podcast. I'm Jen DiMascio, the executive editor for defense and space. And I'm here with space editor, Irene Klotz, technology editor, Guy Norris and very special guest, Jared Isaacman, the founder and CEO of Shift for Payments and the man about to command the first all civilian mission aboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule. Thank you for joining us today. It's a super exciting mission and fundraiser. We're so glad to have you with us today. I'm going to turn this over to Irene in a minute for some questions but I hope you'll spare a smidgen of time for us to talk also about the origin of Draken International, one of the private companies that the U.S. military uses to train its fighter pilots. Over to you, Irene.

Irene Klotz:                 Okay. Thanks, Jared. Last time we spoke, you were in the midst of two different sweepstakes to select crew members for your Crew Dragon flight. Both of those ended at the end of February. Have people been notified yet what's happening with those seats?

Jared Isaacman:         Sure. First, just want to say thanks for having me on. I've been a huge aviation week enthusiast for a very long time, especially during my Draken days. That was where I got all my good insights into what was happening, especially with defense aerospace. Thanks for having me here.

Jared Isaacman:         Yeah. Really, really good question. We did just finish up about 36 hours ago, this grand crew selection process, which is really cool because I think that's one of the most exciting elements to the Inspiration4 mission, is that we're bringing everyday people along. People that haven't trained their whole lives to be NASA astronauts are applied to that program but everyday people that are either supporting a really good cause, in the case of our St. Jude campaign or they're an entrepreneur, which were the two opportunities to be selected for this mission. I can tell you that I don't know a whole lot more, other than I do know that for the generosity seat, it was somebody who made a donation to St. Jude. It wasn't one of the no purchase necessary entries, which I think is really important because obviously, we're out to raise an awful lot of money for such an important cause. And I know that person's going through the vetting process right now but I don't know who they are. There's a lot of firewalls intentionally set up for independence in the process.

Jared Isaacman:         And then on the other seat, the entrepreneurial crew member spot, I know that the 10 finalists have been given to the independent judges and I believe they have a couple more days before their deadline to get all their scoring in. I don't really know who that's going to be either but I know it won't be long before we'll know the full crew of Inspiration4.

Irene Klotz:                 Thanks. One of the things that struck me when we spoke before, was you had said that it's not who you are to want to go on a space journey and not be familiar with how a vehicle operates and not be in a position to control it if something goes wrong. I had asked you if you had interest in flying as a space flight participant on Russian Soyuz or some of the other ISS missions and maybe you could tell us a little bit about why as a pilot, this has drawn you. And I think Guy might want to weigh in on this as well. Thanks.

Jared Isaacman:         Well, yeah. Sure. I'd like to think throughout my life really, I've tried to seek out really interesting challenges. I think that's the big attraction for me and whether that was starting my business when I was 16 or going on mountain climbing expeditions or flying air shows or around the world flights. The challenge is a big part of it and don't get me wrong, you get to see a lot of cool things and experience a lot of great things but for me, if a space opportunity was going to present itself like it did with Inspiration4, I didn't want to be just a passenger. I wanted to actually challenge myself to learn something and put it into practice.

Jared Isaacman:         Yeah, I think that's why I probably would never have done any of the suborbital flights. Maybe a Soyuz flight at some point in the future, if I get to be the engineer or something but yeah, a big part of Inspiration4 for me is also getting familiar with Dragon and Falcon 9, which I'm already hitting the books quite a bit and making sure that I'm able to execute no different than anyone else from a NASA seat would be sitting in the same chair.

Guy Norris:                 Actually, good question that Irene asked there Jared, about the way that ... obviously, the Crew Dragon is designed to fly entirely autonomously throughout its usual full duration mission, automated docking, deorbit and landing, that sort of thing. But there is that manual option to take over, including on the first mission, the LVLH, the local vertical, local horizon orienting of the spacecraft, which I think you could do that manually. Is that something which you hope to actually do on the flight? And could you describe a little bit of how you're preparing to bring the piloting side of it into your training?

Jared Isaacman:         Well, for sure. There's not going to be any configuration changes between our Dragon and a NASA Dragon mission. For sure, there's a lot of autonomy built into the Dragon spacecraft. They do crew resupply missions all the time where there's no crew members at all and the spacecraft and get from point A to B in back. I think there's some differences in this case because we are going to stay in orbit for several days, which is not typical of a Dragon mission and things like you mentioned before, of just the pointing of the spacecraft, some views are more optimal for communication or recharging the battery versus maybe you just want to position the spacecraft for an excellent view of the earth. And that is controlled and commanded in the spacecraft. And then like a lot of other flying, most ... I have 6,000 plus jet hours, almost all of it's ... there's autopilot involved but you still go through the training for the circumstances when autopilot's not appropriate and that's no different with Inspiration4 and Crew Dragon.

Irene Klotz:                 Jared, how would you assess the risk of a space flight, especially this early in SpaceX's human space endeavors, compared to some of the acrobatic flying and some of the other experiences that you've had, that probably gave your parents pause?

Jared Isaacman:         I think the formation acrobatic flying was the most high-risk activity I've ever done in my life. And I believe it is substantially higher risk than this mission to space by a very big margin. People die every year flying air shows. In fact, when I was pretty active on the airshow circuit, people died every weekend. You're obviously flying incredibly close to the ground. A lot of times you're flying very close to another aircraft and you've got all sorts of conditions at play, weather and otherwise, that make it very difficult. I actually think Falcon 9 is incredibly safe. I think it's new technology. There is a lot of autonomy in it. You're talking about an organization that lands rockets on ships in the middle of the ocean and then a month later, sends it right back up again, incredibly impressive organization. And I have been going obviously through all the academics and systems and there is a lot of safety systems built into Dragon that were never available even in space shuttle, that dramatically increase the safety of the spacecraft. I'm very confident in it.

Guy Norris:                 Jared, can I ask you about the interface? Obviously, one of the amazing things about the Crew Dragon is the touchscreen interface for the crew. Obviously, as a pilot, you'll have been used to all sorts of controls and all sorts of displays but how does that ... How do you feel about that touch screen? It goes to Tesla type technology but for a spacecraft, this is a pretty cool thing, isn't it?

Jared Isaacman:         It's very cool. And honestly, I feel right at home because probably 80% or so of my flight time has been in glass cockpit type aircraft. It's very intuitive. The first few times I was in the simulator was not an issue navigating around and getting a lay of the land. Yeah, I actually felt very comfortable right from the start using it. There are obviously really dynamic environments like launch and recovery where having a steady hand under G is not optimal for a touchscreen. And that's why there's the command bar directly underneath it for those most commonly used systems that might come into play during launch and recovery, which is also clearly well thought through.

Guy Norris:                 Can I just ask a quick follow-up on that? Which part of the entire flight are you looking forward to most from that perspective? Launch is just sit back and enjoy the ride, I suppose but is that the going to be the thrilling part or maneuvering in space or reentry?

Jared Isaacman:         Honestly, it's all the above. I know how fortunate I am to be able to go on this kind of an experience right now and I'm going to enjoy every single moment of it, knowing how infrequent it is for people to get to experience this. I do suspect that it's going to be hard to leave the panels because it's just my thing to want to keep tabs on everything. And you have a lot of information there and it's going to be hard to want to take my eyes away from it but I'm pretty sure I'll take some opportunities to enjoy the view and weightlessness and such. And we have a bunch of cool things going on too. We're going to be interacting with the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital kids. We have some experiments. There's a lot of stuff to look forward to throughout the entire mission.

Guy Norris:                 All right. Cool.

Irene Klotz:                 Jared, is there anything else besides a space flight that has the pilot in you itching to experience?

Jared Isaacman:         Well look, I love flying fast jets and there's all moments of time where you think about maybe a Black Diamond Jet Team 2.0, and you bring the band back together with some higher performance aircraft. I think that some of the best times in my life were on the air show circuit. It was a great brotherhood with the team. I imagine something like that could happen again. And there's just so many interesting aircraft in the world that I'd love to have an opportunity to fly at some point or another but right now, the pinnacle is certainly operating a spacecraft in orbit. That's what's on the immediate horizon.

Irene Klotz:                 How much of your time do you think the training is going to be taking up between now and October, November or so when your flight is scheduled? Is this something that's going to force you to step away from your Shift4 an other responsibilities?

Jared Isaacman:         It's a great question. I don't think so. And my earnings call in 48 hours, so be pretty consistent on that point. I do believe I have the bandwidth to do both. We've structured a lot of the training schedule to be on a lot of four day weekends out in California and there's simulate training, so you can really do it at any hour but I did obviously part ways with Draken about a year and a half ago. About six months ago I resigned my board position to free up bandwidth for obviously my day job but other things like this as well. I think I've got the time.

Guy Norris:                 You mentioned the simulator there as well. I was lucky enough to have a go of Orion Simulator to try and dock it with the space station. And I've also flown the lunar excursion module, that simulator, try and get it down on the lunar surface. I failed miserably at all of them because I'm used to the air under my wings idea but what do you think is going to be the biggest challenge getting into that zero-g environment, just for perceptively handling the Crew Dragon?

Jared Isaacman:         It's a good question. I have been able to operate it and I do have one dock to the space station under my wing at this point but not going to the space station so that was more just for experience sake. I can't see anything that's going to jump out at me regarding the systems or operating the spacecraft, that would give me any pause. I'm thinking an awful lot about who my crew members are right now because I don't know who two of them are. And so far, the stars have really aligned with Hayley, Who's just an exceptional human being, couldn't have a better medical officer on board given her background but I don't know who the other two are. And there's obviously a lot of stresses that are put on a person, some physical but also mental, to go into space for several days. I think if I have any ... And I don't even want ... I think concern's even too strong of a word but anything that I'm thinking about now and hoping lines up really well, is my crew and how everybody's going to handle being up in space together.

Irene Klotz:                 Jared, I know the financial details of your arrangement with SpaceX are private but in the sweepstakes awards, the price of the seat was put at 2.2 million. Is that truly what you value the transport at or was that a placeholder figure that you needed to put in to comply with the rules of sweepstakes?

Jared Isaacman:         Well, it's what the lawyers and the accountants arrived at. I stand behind it and yeah, I really ... Not a whole lot more I can add to it. The sweepstakes laws and all that is all super archaic and varies by state. I have to assume that the team of people we put on this for figuring out all the tax implications and such, did a good job.

Irene Klotz:                 In addition to the cost of the charter of course, you've launched a very public fundraiser for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and donated a hundred million dollars. Is this a substantial fraction of your wealth? Is this something that is pretty easy for you to part with and why St. Jude's, why that organization?

Jared Isaacman:         Well, I think it's a lot of money by any standard. And I think it's money going to a great place. And if you asked me like in any adventure or first ... Or a significant moment that obviously comes with great expense, it is absolutely the right thing to do to make it about something bigger than the effort in itself. And I've tried to do that on past missions with the around the world flights or every air show was dedicated to a charitable organization. And we brought out patients and such to meet with us during everything like that. And that's what Inspiration4 should be doing as well because it just feels almost irresponsible to invest the cost for something that is advancing our interests up in space, which is still incredibly important I think, for all of humankind. Progress is important. Progress does make life better on earth but you also have to address some of the significant challenges that impact everyday people today. And it's a balancing act.

Jared Isaacman:         And I think that's been the case throughout all of really humankind, that there are hardships and travesty in the moments. And if you put everything you have towards just solving those problems, well then you don't necessarily create progress for the rest of society either or you have to do both. And that's what we're trying to do with Inspiration4. I certainly hope it's a model that others follow for all the other great expeditions and adventures that are here to come, to make it something more than just the mission in itself. Anyway, that's just my thoughts on it.

Guy Norris:                 Jared, I've got one more piloting question, please. I saw a picture of you, I think it was in a MiG-29, a two-seat MiG-29 and obviously through Draken and the other things you've been involved with, you've flown a lot of types now. What would you say is your favorite aircraft and ... Well, will Crew Dragon basically eclipse everything after that?

Jared Isaacman:         Yeah. I think aerodynamic performance within the atmosphere, Dragon's probably not going to do well. I was joking with the Draken guys that I have the high fast flyer profile down. That's one of the adversary profiles that we train to but it's not going to turn really well, I can tell you that. The Dragon is a great privilege to be able to fly. If it's in terms of the things that ... Fixed wing aircraft that I've really enjoyed flying, MiG-29 for sure because it's the most high-performance aircraft I've ever flown. It's also the only twin engine fighter I've flown. And that's nice because two engines is better than one but big fan of the A-4N Skyhawk. It's very similar to the Super Fox configuration that you would've seen flown in Top Gun or the Blue Angels flew. It's a hot rod. That was always a lot of blast to fly.

Jared Isaacman:         And then I flew the first L-159 in the country and brought it out to Nellis as part of Draken. We now have about 20 or so those operational. That was a really fun aircraft too. Very modern military architecture, was a really good radar. Anyway, I enjoyed flying that too.

Guy Norris:                 Nice.

Irene Klotz:                 Speaking of Draken, Jen, you've mentioned some of the interest that you had in that.

Jen DiMascio:            Yeah. I'm interested in the origin of Draken International and how you got interested in that business model.

Jared Isaacman:         Yeah. The story is it absolutely came out of the air show days. All of the founders of Draken were essentially the founding members of the Black Diamond Jet Team. And so we put together the team in the end of 2010 and then 2011 was our first full season on the airshow circuit, which was a ton because may recall that year, we had sequestration and the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds I think, weren't able to make a lot of shows. We wound up just flying every weekend in a different city, which was pretty amazing but the risks ... We were very aware that there isn't a jet demonstration team flying like we do, five, six, seven jets that didn't have a fatality. They've all had them. And it just felt like it would be an eventuality at some point but we didn't want to give up the comradery or the challenge of flying these aircraft. What we want to do, is pivot the model into something more commercial.

Jared Isaacman:         Now, the only other organization that existed at the time was ATAC, which now is part of Textron. What we looked at is, "Okay, how do we differentiate? If we're going to do this, how do we really separate ourselves from the only other company that's doing it?"

Jared Isaacman:         And what we determined, was it was going to be two characteristics. One was the quantity of aircraft we'd be able to make available. We were going to solve a much, much bigger problem, which is probably one of the reasons why the air force never contract with anyone before us is nobody could really make a dent in the demand. And then second was capabilities. ATAC at the time was operating aircraft that were very Korean War vintage, no radar, metal in the sky would be how we would have described it. We wanted to have an ability to be reactive to military aircraft, so that we were aware that they were there and that would influence our tactics and two, capabilities to actually punish their mistakes where they were more threat representative.

Jared Isaacman:         And so that set us out to traveling all over the world, looking at fleets of aircraft. And ultimately, we acquired quite a few. And then we had to just keep banging on the door at the air force until they gave us a shot. And when they did, they came in big numbers because we went from a proof of concept to maxing out the fleet and buying more very, very quickly.

Irene Klotz:                 And that's still operational today, right.

Jared Isaacman:         Oh, yeah. Draken still is the only commercial air service provider supporting the air national guard. Draken is the only commercial air service provider dropping live ordinance for the Marine Corps. Draken has the only commercial provider of fighter aircraft at Nellis air force base, which is home of the weapons school, home of red flag. Pretty much the hardest environment in the air force to operate at is on the Nellis training range. Yeah, Draken is still doing a really great job.

Irene Klotz:                 When you look at your upcoming flight, is there anything at this point that gives you pause or where you're putting some special attention?

Jared Isaacman:         Well, I think you want to take everything very, very seriously. I think that this being the first mission in a direction where others will follow and if you really are working backwards from ... I don't know, 50, 100 from now, there's going to be Martian colonies and lunar bases and there's going to be families probably growing up on another world. And those are all really exciting. And geez, there's many other elements too, if this goes right. You're going to have constellations of satellites that are going to bring connectivity to the hardest to reach portions of the world. You could have people flying from New York to Australia in minutes, not hours. Lots of really interesting things to work backwards from but you got to get the first mission right, so as to avoid the timelines getting slipped or delayed.

Jared Isaacman:         These are things we told ourselves at Draken all the time. We're new to this. Half the air force loves us, half the air force wishes we didn't exist. If we make a mistake now, it'll be a decade before anyone will get a shot at this again. And I think very similarly with Inspiration4, we got to get this right, so that others can follow, so that we can make space really accessible and affordable for everyone. I think it's a big responsibility and we've got to train really hard and make sure that we execute well.

Jen DiMascio:             I think we have time for maybe one more question, Irene.

Irene Klotz:                 Let's see, what been ... Do you have another question, Guy?

Guy Norris:                 Well, no. I was just going to say, do you think it would be a chance to pilot one of those vehicles maybe to a lunar or a Martian landing? You're just a young guy right now but there's still plenty of runway ahead, right.

Jared Isaacman:         Yeah. The official answer is one mission at a time but knowing myself, I find it hard to imagine that this will be the last mission.

Irene Klotz:                 Have you seen anything that's made you want to invest in any of these space companies yet?

Jared Isaacman:         I already am. I just don't think I'm allowed to disclose it but safe to say I'm a big fan of SpaceX and their technology and I think they're going to amazing places.

Irene Klotz:                 Thanks, Jared.

Jen DiMascio:             Yes. Thank you so much. It's been a great conversation. Good luck with the training and the selection of the rest of your crew mates. And for our listeners, please tune in again next week for another edition of Check 6, which you can download on Apple iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher. Thanks for listening.

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Senior 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.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.