US billionaire buys SpaceX flight for first all-civilian space mission

Shift4 Payments chief executive Jared Isaacman and three others could make historic space flight as early as October this year

In this undated image provided St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Jared Isaacman pauses while speaking about his enthusiasm for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and his spaceflight called Inspiration4, in Memphis, Tenn. Isaacman, a billionaire who made a fortune in tech and fighter jets is buying an entire SpaceX flight and plans to take three people with him to circle the globe this year. Isaacman announced Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, that he aims to use the trip to raise more than $200 million for St. Jude. (St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital via AP)
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A US billionaire who made his fortune in technology and fighter jets is buying an entire SpaceX flight and plans to take three people with him to circle the Earth this year.

Jared Isaacman announced on Monday that he intends to use the private trip to raise $200 million for St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, half coming from his own pocket.

A healthcare worker for St Jude has already been selected for the mission.

Anyone donating to St Jude in February will be entered into a random draw for the third seat.

The fourth seat will go to a business owner who uses Shift4 Payments, Mr Isaacman’s credit card-processing company in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

“I truly want us to live in a world 50 or 100 years from now where people are jumping in their rockets like the Jetsons and there are families bouncing around on the Moon with their kid in a spacesuit,” said Mr Isaacman, who turns 38 next week.

“I also think if we are going to live in that world, we better conquer childhood cancer along the way.”

He bought a Super Bowl commercial to publicise the mission, called Inspiration4 and scheduled for October.

Details of the ride in a SpaceX Dragon capsule are still being worked out, including the number of days the four will be in orbit after blasting off from Florida.

The other passengers will be announced next month.

Mr Isaacman’s trip is the latest private space travel announcement.

Three businessmen are paying $55m each to fly to the International Space Station next January on a SpaceX Dragon.

And a Japanese businessman has a deal with SpaceX to fly to the Moon in a few years' time.

Mr Isaacman said that the anticipated donation to St Jude “vastly exceeds the cost of the mission".

A former Nasa astronaut will accompany the three businessmen to the ISS, but Mr Isaacman will be his own spacecraft commander.

He said the appeal was learning all about SpaceX’s Dragon and Falcon 9 rocket. The capsules are designed to fly autonomously but a pilot can override the system in an emergency.

A “space geek” since kindergarten, Mr Isaacman dropped out of high school when he was 16, earned a General Education Development certificate and started a business in his parents’ basement, which became the genesis for Shift4.

He set a speed record flying around the world in 2009 while raising money for the Make-A-Wish programme, and later established Draken International, the world’s largest private fleet of fighter jets.

Mr Isaacman’s $100m commitment to St Jude in Memphis, Tennessee, is the largest by one person and one of the largest overall.

“We’re pinching ourselves every single day,” said Rick Shadyac, president of St Jude’s fund-raising organisation.

Besides SpaceX training, Mr Isaacman intends to take his crew on a mountain expedition to copy his most uncomfortable experience so far – staying in a tent on the side of a mountain in bitter winter conditions.

“We’re all going to get to know each other really well before launch,” he said.

Mr Isaacman is acutely aware of the need for things to go well.

“If something does go wrong, it will set back every other person’s ambition to go and become a commercial astronaut,” he said from his home in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Mr Isaacman said he signed with Elon Musk’s company because it is the clear leader in commercial spaceflight, with two astronaut flights already completed.

Boeing has yet to fly astronauts to the space station for Nasa.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin expect to start flying customers this year, but their craft will just briefly skim the surface of space.

Mr Isaacman has been looking for a space flight for years.

He travelled to Kazakhstan in 2008 to see a Russian Soyuz blast off with a tourist on board, then a few years later attended one of Nasa’s last space shuttle launches.

SpaceX invited him to the company’s second astronaut launch for Nasa in November.

While Mr Isaacman and wife Monica managed to keep his space trip quiet for months, their daughters could not.

The girls, aged 7 and 4, overheard their parents discussing the flight last year and told their teachers, who called to ask if it was true that dad was an astronaut.

“My wife said, ‘No, of course not, you know how these kids make things up'," Mr Isaacman said.

"But I mean the reality is my kids weren’t that far off with that one.”