This astronaut trains by piloting fighter planes. We went for the tour.

Jared Isaacman, who commissioned a private astronaut flight into orbit last year, bought three more space trips from Elon Musk’s SpaceX

Scott
Scott “Kidd” Poteet pilots a Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet over Bozeman, Montana, in preparation for the planned March launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

BOZEMAN, Mont. — We are descending the runway, picking up speed for takeoff when the pilot says it calmly, in a neutral tone and without warning: “afterburner”.

I can barely make it out above the roar of the engines, but then the MiG-29 fighter jet we’re strapped to jumps at what looks like warp speed, spikes sharply and begins to tilt at right with a force that moves the horizon and fills me with a flash of panic. I feel like a part of me is left on the tarmac – most likely my stomach, or maybe a vital organ. It’s a hollow, unbalanced feeling that leaves me with a troubling thought: I’m in real trouble.

I knew we would fly fast and energetic. That we were shooting serious G’s and going backwards. That is, after all, why we are here. The pilot is an experienced aviator and astronaut, training to fly his next space mission the same way John Glenn, Alan Shepard and the rest of the Mercury astronauts with the “right gear” did at dawn 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 army. On the contrary, Jared Isaacman is a tech billionaire who dropped out of high school to start his own business and is now at the forefront of the new space age.

Last year, Isaacman, who is 39, and three other private citizens completed a historic mission, flying around the Earth in a SpaceX capsule for three days in the first all-civilian space flight to orbit, known as the ‘Inspiration4. Recently, he ordered three more flights from SpaceX, the California-based company founded by Elon Musk, in what amounts to a private spaceflight venture that seeks to open a frontier in commercial spaceflight with what he calls the Polaris program. .

Isaacman, who did not say how much he paid for the Inspiration4 flight or the Polaris program, said he intended to innovate with each of the flights by leveraging SpaceX’s growing capabilities.

In 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. and fly deeper than any manned spaceflight mission since the Apollo era. But perhaps the boldest part of what they call the Polaris Dawn mission is that they intend to attempt a spacewalk and become the first private citizens to do so.

The next of those flights could end up flying to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, docking there, and raising its orbit, extending its lifespan. For now, NASA and SpaceX are only investigating whether this is possible. But at a press conference on Thursday, Isaacman said it would “certainly fit into the kind of metrics we’ve established for the Polaris program.”

The third flight would be the first human flight of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket.

The Washington Post’s Christian Davenport prepares for a flight in a MiG-29 fighter jet. (Video: James Cornsilk/TWP)

To prepare, his crew has already gone scuba diving, which simulates weightlessness, and reached the summit of the more than 19,000-foot-high Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador as part of a consolidation exercise. ‘crew. They’ve also experienced a zero-G flight in a 727 plane that flies in parabolas and gives passengers about 30 seconds of weightlessness at a time, and they spend hours training at SpaceX headquarters in simulators as well as a scale model of the Dragon spaceship.

Now I’m here with a few other journalists, SpaceX employees, and people who supported Isaacman in his space efforts to participate in the fighter jet training portion of the program.

The idea is to “comfort with being uncomfortable,” says Isaacman, who founded Shift4 Payments, which processes more than $200 billion a year. Spaceflight is a difficult and scary endeavor that doesn’t come with an endgame button. On the Inspiration4 flight, a few crew members fell ill on the first day, as often happens in space. The toilet broke, setting off an alarm.

“You can easily see any type of normal human being like, ‘You know what? I’ve had enough. I’m ready to go home now. I’m not feeling well, and I’m not feeling well. I don’t have a bathroom and I just want it to be over,” Isaacman says. “But it doesn’t work that way in spaceflight.”

So he takes the crew to the mountains, “where the people are miserable, cold and damp”. And in fighter plane flights that simulate the gravitational force of a rocket taking off or reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.

SpaceX’s simulators are great for training, “but you can get out of the simulator and go get a cup of coffee,” he says. In a jet, there is no escape.

For decades, NASA astronauts have trained in T-38 jets, breaking the sound barrier, pushing boundaries, getting used to operating in conditions that challenge the body and mind. Much of astronaut training is done on the ground, except when they step into these fighters.

“It’s actually the most important training we do as astronauts,” former NASA astronaut Terry Virts once said. “It’s the only place where we’re not in a simulator. It’s real theft and if you make a mistake you can hurt yourself, break something or run out of gas. There are a lot of 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, Microsoft co-founder and space enthusiast. Isaacman may be a civilian, but he’s an elite pilot who turned a lifelong passion into a business. In 2009, he broke the record for the fastest flight around the world. He participated in air shows and founded a company, Draken International, which provided training for American military pilots.

As he goes through a series of last-minute security checks, I strap myself in. Helmet on, the sweet, rancid smell of jet fuel engulfs an already claustrophobic cockpit with all kinds of levers and switches that I dare not touch. Everything feels real to me and I check my heart rate on my Apple Watch. We are close to takeoff, but still on solid ground, and yet I feel my pulse beating. Sitting atop the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo 11 crew to the moon, Neil Armstrong’s was beating at 110 beats per minute.

Here, sitting on the track, mine is 117.

Isaacman hits the afterburner, injecting a burst of fuel that ignites the exhaust and gives us extra thrust as we take off. He tilts the jet all the way to the right, bringing the ground into focus. I no longer look at my watch. I don’t want to see what ugly numbers show up.

The discomfort that accompanies take-off is a shock. I’m strapped into the seat, strapped in by twin harnesses that go over my shoulders and across my chest and another pair over my thighs, so I can barely move. And yet I feel a deep sense of imbalance, as if in free fall, which makes no sense given that I’m 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 totally unheard of sensation that thankfully comes with precedent. I’ve never flown in a fighter jet before, but I’ve flown zero-G flight, and the feeling of being way outside my comfort zone – and the fear that comes with it – is familiar. . And so when Isaacman levels the jet and asks me how I’m doing, I say I’m fine. I don’t know if that’s entirely true, but my stomach – or any other part of me that was gone – came back. I feel balanced again, at ease – ready, I think, for what is to come.

The MiG is not comparable to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The maximum speed is Mach 2, which is twice the speed of sound. SpaceX’s hulking rocket is powered by nine engines that propel the Dragon spacecraft into orbit at Mach 22. Yet the MiG is an impressive machine – a Formula 1 racing car with wings – that leaps when Isaacman wants it to.

Over the next half hour we fly in formation, with another pair of disturbing fighter jets close by. We roll, flying upside down for a moment – ​​an upside-down sensation that mimics the disorienting sensation of space, where there is no up or down. In order not to feel nauseous, I keep my head still, gaze towards the horizon and watch the world twirl around – the ground where the sky was.

Isaacman leans sharply right and left, increasing the force of gravity, which makes me feel like there’s a crushing weight on my chest. In the end, we pull about 6 G, or six times the force of gravity. But luckily I wear pants that automatically inflate each time we start shooting Gs. The pressure of the suit keeps the blood in my chest, preventing dizziness or, in more serious circumstances, loss of consciousness.

Each pass gives me more confidence. What was once intimidating is now fun. Then I can say that the flight is almost over. We go back to the tarmac, and now, comfortable with being uncomfortable, I want more. “Just one more roll?” ” I ask. But the other jets joined us in formation, and it would be too dangerous.

Still, Isaacman assures me that the flight is not over yet. He points the jet down and roars past the hangar, where people are outside watching and waving. Another blast from the afterburner and it soars high and straight into the deep blue sky again, and as I lean into the bend, I’m grateful to be in the air a little longer.

Christian Davenport of The Washington Post describes what it was like to fly in a MiG-29. (Video: James Cornsilk/TWP)

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