Entrepreneur purchases SpaceX Crew Dragon mission

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WASHINGTON — An entrepreneur has purchased a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission slated for launch late this year that will include three other people as part of a project that is a mix of charity and commerce.

SpaceX announced Feb. 1 that Jared Isaacman, the founder and chief executive of online payment processing company Shift4 Payments, purchased the mission, scheduled for launch no earlier than the fourth quarter of 2021. Isaacman will be one of the four people to fly on the spacecraft, which will spend two to four days in low Earth orbit but not dock with the International Space Station.

Isaacman is calling the mission “Inspiration4” and is working with both his own company and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to identify the other three people who will accompany him on the first “all-civilian” orbital spaceflight.

“The three crew members we are selecting come from everyday walks of life, including a front-line health care worker who’s committed to helping kids fight cancer, someone who visits our mission’s website and makes a donation, and an inspiring entrepreneur building a business,” he said in a call with reporters about the mission. “Thirty days from now they’re going to get fitted for a spacesuit.”

One of the three people will be a health care worker at St. Jude who has apparently already been selected. “I know she’s looking forward to the launch as much as me,” he said of that individual, whom he did not name.

The second person will be selected from what is effectively a raffle. People buy entries on the Inspiration4 website, with the money going to St. Jude. Isaacman said he expected that contest to raise at least $100 million, plus $100 million he is donating directly to the hospital.

The third person will be selected from a contest affiliated with Shift4 Payments. Participants can start an online store using the company’s platform and submit a video to be reviewed by a “panel of celebrity judges,” with the winner joining the crew of the mission.

The winners will join Isaacman for what he calls a “pretty extensive training plan” to both prepare for the flight and to get to know each other long before they spend several days in a small capsule. “I am going to ensure that I introduce some very uncomfortable and stressful situations here on Earth long before we go up in space,” he said. “I intend to get four people into a tent that I can attest is absolutely smaller than the Dragon spacecraft on a mountain when it’s snowing out and introduce everybody to some really stressful situations.”

Neither he nor SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said much about the medical requirements for the participants. “I’ve already gone through the SpaceX medical screening process, and I can tell you that the attitude is about how do you get someone into space, and not how you ground them,” Isaacman said.

“If you can go on a roller-coaster ride, you should be fine for going on Dragon,” Musk said. The official rules of the competition do require people to be at least 18 years old, no taller than 1.98 meters, no heavier than 113.4 kilograms and “physically and psychologically fit for training and Spaceflight.”

The rules also limit participation to “U.S. persons” as defined under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which includes citizens and permanent residents. Musk, though, seemed to think others could fly. “It’s not out of the question that someone who is not a U.S. citizen could fly,” he said when asked about that limitation.

Isaacman did not disclose how much he was paying for the flight or other expenses associated with the project, such as an ad that will air during the Super Bowl Feb. 7. “What we aim to raise in terms of those funds and the amount of good it will do,” he said of the $200 million goal, “will certainly far exceed the cost of the mission itself.”

Musk said commercial missions like this one will contribute to SpaceX’s development of its Starship vehicle. SpaceX has agreements for other Crew Dragon commercial missions with Axiom Space and Space Adventures, with the Axiom Space Ax-1 mission launching no earlier than January 2022.

“We have to fund the Starship program somehow, and this mission will help fund the Starship program,” he said.

The Inspiration4 mission will use the Crew Dragon spacecraft called “Resilience” that is currently docked to the International Space Station for NASA’s Crew-1 mission. “We will, of course, coordinate this with NASA,” Musk said. “NASA has been very generous and is supportive.”

NASA offered its support in a tweet. “Excited to see one of the original goals of @Commercial_Crew come to be with the expansion of new commercial activities beyond our own in low-Earth orbit,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations and the former manager of the commercial crew program, referring to the Inspiration4 announcement.

The 37-year-old Isaacman, a pilot, said the flight is the realization of a dream that dates back to his childhood. “I remember actually — very true story — telling my kindergarten teacher that some day I’m going to space,” he recalled.

Musk, too, is interested in going to space someday. “I’ll be on a flight one day, but not this one.”