Jared Isaacman, who commissioned a private astronaut flight to orbit last year, has bought three more space trips from Elon Musk’s SpaceX
October 2, 2022 at 7:00 a.m. EDT
Scott “Kidd” Poteet flies a Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet over Bozeman, Mont., in preparation for the scheduled launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in March at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Jonathan Newton/Washington Post)
BOZEMAN, Mon. — We’re maneuvering down the runway, accelerating for takeoff, when the pilot says it calmly, matter-of-factly, and without warning: “Afterburner.”
I can barely make out him over the roar of the engines, but then the MiG-29 fighter we’re strapped to jumps to what feels like warp speed, points sharply up, and begins with a force that shifts and fills the horizon, tipping me to the right with a tinge of panic. It feels like a part of me stayed on the pavement – probably my stomach or maybe a vital organ. It’s a hollow, unbalanced feeling that leaves me with an unsettling thought: I’m in real trouble.
I knew we would fly fast and powerful. That we would pull serious Gs and go inverted. After all, that’s what we’re here for. The pilot is a veteran aviator and astronaut who is training to lead his next space mission just as John Glenn, Alan Shepard and the rest of the Mercury astronauts did with the “right stuff” at the start of the space race.
Only, the pilot sitting in front of me in the cockpit is not a NASA astronaut. He never served in the military. Rather, Jared Isaacman is a tech billionaire who dropped out of high school to start his company and is now at the forefront of the new space age.
Last year, 39-year-old Isaacman and three other private individuals completed a historic mission, flying three days into orbit in a SpaceX capsule in the first purely civilian spaceflight known as Inspiration4. He recently commissioned three more flights from SpaceX, the California company founded by Elon Musk, which amounts to a private space company trying to open a frontier in commercial spaceflight with what he calls the Polaris program.
Isaacman, who didn’t say how much he paid for the Inspiration4 flight or the Polaris program, has said that he intends to break new ground with each of the flights, leveraging SpaceX’s growing capabilities.
For the first of those missions – scheduled for March – Isaacman, two SpaceX engineers (Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon) and a former Air Force pilot (Scott “Kidd” Poteet) plan to spend up to five days in orbit, flying lower than each manned space mission since the Apollo era. But perhaps the most daring part of the Polaris Dawn mission is that they intend to spacewalk and become the first private individuals to do so.
The next of those flights could end up flying to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, docking with it, and raising its orbit, which in turn would extend its lifespan. Currently, NASA and SpaceX are only investigating whether this is possible. But during a Thursday news conference, Isaacman said it “would certainly fit within the parameters that we have set for the Polaris program.”
The third flight would be the first manned flight of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket.
The Washington Post’s Christian Davenport prepares to fly in a MiG-29 fighter jet. (Video: James Cornsilk/TWP)
In preparation, his crew has already scuba-dived, simulating weightlessness, and scaled the more than 19,000-foot Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador as a team-building exercise. They’ve also experienced zero-g flight in a 727 plane, which flies in parabolas, giving passengers about 30 seconds of weightlessness at a time, and they spend hours training at SpaceX headquarters in simulators as well as a model of the Dragon spacecraft .
Now I’m here with a few other journalists, SpaceX employees, and people who have assisted Isaacman in his spaceflight efforts to participate in the fighter jet training portion of the program.
The idea is to “make friends with the discomfort,” says Isaacman, the founder of Shift4 Payments, which processes more than $200 billion annually. Spaceflight is a difficult, scary endeavor that doesn’t come with a game-over button. On the Inspiration4 flight, as often happens in space, a few crew members fell ill on the first day. The toilet broke and an alarm sounded.
“It’s easy to see any normal person saying, ‘You know what? I’ve had enough. I’m ready to come home now. I’m not feeling well and I don’t have a bathroom and I just want it to stop,'” says Isaacman. “But that doesn’t work in space travel.”
So he takes the crew to the mountains “where people are unhappy and cold and wet”. And in exuberant fighter jet rides that simulate the gravitational pull of a rocket taking off or re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
The simulators at SpaceX are great for training, “but you can get out of the simulator and get a cup of coffee,” he says. There is no escape in a jet.
For decades, NASA astronauts have trained in T-38 jets, breaking the sound barrier, pushing boundaries and becoming accustomed to operating in conditions that tax the body and mind. Much of astronaut training occurs on the ground, except when they board those fighter jets.
“It’s actually the most important training we do as astronauts,” former NASA astronaut Terry Virts once said. “That’s the only place we’re not in a simulator. It’s real flying and if you make a mistake you could hurt yourself or break something or run out of gas. There are many things that happen in the real world in a T-38 that don’t happen in the simulator.”
Isaacman owns a fleet of fighter jets – the MiG, which he acquired from the estate of the late Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and a space enthusiast friend. Isaacman may be a civilian, but he’s an elite pilot who has turned a lifelong passion into a business. In 2009 he broke the record for the fastest flight around the world. He has flown at air shows and started a company called Draken International that trains US military pilots.
I buckle up while he performs a series of last-minute security checks. Helmet on, the sweet, rancid smell of jet fuel envelops a cockpit that has already grown claustrophobic I don’t dare touch it with all sorts of levers and switches. Everything feels real to me and I check my heart rate on my Apple Watch. We’re about to take off, but we’re still on solid ground, and yet I can feel my pulse pounding. Neil Armstrong was on the Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo 11 crew to the moon and was beating at 110 beats per minute.
Here, sitting on the runway, is my 117.
Isaacman hits the afterburner and injects a shot of fuel that ignites the exhaust and gives us extra boost when we take off. He steers the jet sharply to the right and brings the ground clearly into view. I no longer look at my watch. I don’t want to see what ugly numbers are displayed.
The discomfort that accompanies the start is a shock. I’m strapped into the seat, tied to two straps that go across my shoulders and across my chest, and another pair across my thighs, so I can barely move. And yet I feel a deep sense of imbalance, like I’m in free fall, which doesn’t make sense since I’m strapped in tighter than a baby in a car seat.
The Washington Post’s Christian Davenport flies in a MiG-29 fighter jet. (Video: James Cornsilk/TWP)
It’s a completely unfamiliar sensation that, fortunately, comes with a precedent. I’ve never flown in a fighter jet, but I’ve flown on zero-g flight, and the feeling of being way out of my comfort zone — and the fear that comes with it — is familiar. And when Isaacman lines up the jet and asks me how I’m doing, I reply that I’m fine. I don’t know if that’s entirely true, but my stomach – or whatever part of me was gone – has returned. I feel balanced again, well – ready, I think, for what is to come.
The MiG is no comparison to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The maximum speed is Mach 2 or twice the speed of sound. SpaceX’s towering rocket is powered by nine thrusters that propel the Dragon spacecraft into orbit at Mach 22. Still, the MiG is an impressive piece of machinery – a Formula 1 racer with wings – that jumps when Isaacman wants it to.
For the next half hour we fly in formation, with another pair of fighter jets coming unnervingly close. We do a roll, fly upside down for a moment – an upside down feeling that mimics the confusing feel of outer space where there is no up or down. To keep from getting nauseous, I keep my head still, my eyes on the horizon, and watch the world turn—the ground where the sky used to be.
Isaacman leans sharply left and right, increasing gravity, making me feel like there’s a crushing weight on my chest. We end up pulling about 6 Gs, or six times gravity. But luckily I’m wearing pants that inflate automatically when we start pulling Gs. The pressure of the suit keeps the blood in my torso, preventing dizziness or, in worse cases, unconsciousness.
Every pass gives me more confidence. What was once intimidating is now fun. Then, I notice, the flight is almost over. We’re going back to the tarmac, and now that I’m uncomfortable, I want more. “Just one more roll?” I ask. But the other jets have joined us in formation and that would be too dangerous.
Still, Isaacman assures me, the flight isn’t over yet. He points the jet low and zooms past the hangar, with people outside watching and waving. Another bang from the afterburner and it’s pitching back up and right into the deep blue sky and as I lean into the turn, I’m grateful to only be a little longer in the air.
The Washington Post’s Christian Davenport describes what it was like to fly in a MiG-29. (Video: James Cornsilk/TWP)