He started his business in his parents’ basement at age 16. At 26, he set a world record for an around-the-world flight in a light jet.
But you should have seen Jared Isaacman as a kindergartener, growing up in New Jersey.
“I was always really interested in space,” he said, remembering being inspired by a picture book about the Space Shuttle in his school library, remembering exactly where the book was and wanting to go back, all these years later, to see if it’s still there. “I told my kindergarten teacher I was going to go to space someday.”
Now, he is. And he’s taking St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with him, as the 37-year-old commander of the world’s first all-civilian mission to space. His crew will include a St. Jude ambassador with direct ties to the mission, representing the mission pillar of Hope, and another person, representing the pillar of Generosity, chosen as part of a $200 million St. Jude fundraising initiative. Isaacman has committed to giving $100 million to St. Jude, and all are invited to join in donating to reach the ambitious overall campaign goal in support of St. Jude’s current multi-billion dollar expansion to accelerate research advances and save more children worldwide.
Isaacman, founder and chief executive officer of Shift4 Payments, a St. Jude partner of several years, made a gift of the two crew positions to St. Jude, and made the mission’s name — Inspiration4 — its vow: to inspire support for St. Jude while sending a humanitarian message of possibility.
So if it’s a partnership made for the heavens — the intrepid explorer who’s always dreamed of space, and the children’s research hospital renowned for its scientific advances — it’s rooted in making things better here on Earth.
“We do firmly believe that there is going to be a world, 50 or 100 years from now, where people are going to be jumping in their rockets like the Jetsons, and you’re going to have families bouncing around on the moon with their kids at a lunar base,” Isaacman said.
“If we can accomplish all of that, we sure as heck better tackle childhood cancer along the way.”
The greater good
It’s not the word you might associate with a kindergartener who had his head in the cosmos, who grew up to be an accomplished jet pilot rated to fly dozens of commercial, military and experimental aircraft — a guy who has his own MiG-29.
But there you go. Isaacman is grounded — in a good way. His eyes are on the stars, always have been, but his heart is attuned to the greater good. He’s thankful, citing all the luck he’s had and how “the ball bounced my way many times,” though he’s self-made. He’s humble, though his business success has made him a billionaire, profiled by Forbes magazine as a savvy entrepreneur who flies jets for fun and “climbs mountains to unwind.”
“What can you do to make a bigger impact than just what you’re setting out to do? Right from the start, that has to be part of the calculus,” he said. “When the opportunity presented itself — to be the first civilian mission to space — there wasn’t really any delay before realizing the world has to benefit in an extraordinary way. Because for as much as we like to conquer and drive progress in space, you can’t ignore the problems of the world we live in today.”
It’s why he’s made this mission more about St. Jude than himself. It’s why he talks about the mission in terms of the hope it can instill and generosity it can inspire — even as he acknowledges how “incredibly cool” little Jared, the childhood version of himself, would consider it.
Driven by empathy
If some people are dreamers and some are doers, Isaacman is both.
As a kindergartener he imagined someday going to space. As a teenager, he went down to his parents’ basement — that place where millions of teenagers have gone, before and since, to escape the watchful gaze of adults — and created a business.
Today, that company, known now as Shift4 Payments, is one of the tech sector’s great successes, processing more than $200 billion in payments for 200,000-plus businesses in 2019.
He took it public in 2020, becoming a billionaire.
The dreamer in him never forgot about going to space. The doer started with prop planes, working his way up to fighter jets, around-the-world flights, and air-show performances that always had a charitable cause.
Hobby isn’t quite the word for Isaacman’s interest in flight — he even co-founded a company, Draken International, which grew into the world’s largest private air force, training pilots for the U.S. Armed Forces.
Now he’s on the verge of realizing that childhood dream — commanding a crew of civilian astronauts aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, launching from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and orbiting the Earth in a history-making, multi-day mission.
The kindergartener’s head might be spinning into orbit right about now. The adult, while fully realizing the “cool factor” of what he’s about to do, seems driven by empathy, and the extraordinary good this mission can do.
“My family, even my more extended family, never had to endure what I know a lot of the St. Jude families are having to go through right now,” he said. “That heartache that they’re going through is definitely not lost on us. It comes up constantly, from when my kids were born and thinking through how fortunate we were, that they were healthy kids.”
That heartache. Isaacman thought of it again as he went through the SpaceX health screening process for this mission.
Amid the “ton of tests,” he said, “I was sitting there thinking: Imagine all of the kids who are going through something similar — except it’s not for baseline diagnostics; it’s to understand what’s ravaging your body.
“Those kinds of things serve as constant reminders about what we aim to accomplish from this, to ease some of that suffering.”
The mission of life
He calls it “this epic adventure.”
He’s talking about this mission to space, but he might also be talking about life and how he lives it, as if every moment is precious.
“We do only have one crack at this,” he said. “We should seek out some of life’s greatest challenges.”
He’s talking about exploration and adventure. He’s talking about taking leaps. Starting your own business in your parents’ basement. Dropping out of high school and getting your GED (yeah, he did that, too) to focus fulltime on business. Learning to pilot jets and flying them around the world. Climbing mountains. Commanding a civilian mission to space.
But he’s also talking about another mission he’s joined — the mission of St. Jude, not just to treat cancer and other catastrophic pediatric diseases but to cure them, through research and science and the enduring belief, first expressed by founder Danny Thomas: No child should die in the dawn of life.
“I think it all kind of gets woven together,” Isaacman said. “Aside from going up into space and what we’re going to try and do there, which is kind of out of this world, it’s everything we hope to accomplish on this planet, as a result.”
Because dawn is just the beginning. Dawn is that little boy looking up to space and telling his kindergarten teacher he would go there someday. A life, fully realized, fully lived, is putting a rocket to that dream and making it real.