Michael Strahan, Alan Shepard’s daughter and four others rocket into space


Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin’s founder, pins the company’s astronaut wings on Laura Shepard Chesley as Michael Strahan and other crewmates look on. Credit: Blue Origin

Sixty years after her father became the first American in space, Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, rocketed out of the lower atmosphere Saturday, joining ABC TV host Michael Strahan and four others for a thrilling 10-minute climb to space and back.

Strapped into Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule, a spacecraft named after her father, Churchley and her fellow passengers blasted off from the company’s West Texas launch site at 10 a.m. EST, shooting skyward atop a hydrogen-fueled single-stage rocket.

The launching came two days later than planned because of high winds aloft, but it was smooth sailing Saturday as the stubby rocket roared away atop a jet of flaming exhaust, accelerating to a maximum velocity of 2,244 mph.

Released from the booster about two minutes and 45 seconds after blastoff, Churchley, Strahan, aerospace entrepreneurs Evan Dick, Dylan Taylor, Lane Bess and his son Cameron were suddenly weightless, free to unstrap and float about the cabin as it coasted upward on a ballistic trajectory.

“Check this out… oh my God!” one of the passengers exclaimed amid laughter and obvious exhilaration, taking in the view of Earth and the black of space through the capsule’s bay windows.

The spacecraft soared to an altitude of 65.8 miles — comfortably above the internationally recognized 62-mile-high “boundary” of space — before arcing over and beginning the long plunge back to Earth after about three minutes of weightlessness.

The reusable booster flew itself back to a pinpoint landing about eight minutes after takeoff. The crew capsule, descending under three large parachutes, followed suit two minutes later, touching down in a cloud of dust to close out a 10-minute 13-second flight.

Blue Origin owner Jeff Bezos and recovery personnel were on the scene in minutes to open the hatch and welcome the crew back to Earth.

“Welcome back, guys,” Bezos said after opening the hatch. Strahan was first out, smiling, hugging the Amazon founder and greeting his excited family.

“This is the thing, the Gs, it’s not a face lift, it’s a face drop!” he joked. “I know what I’m going to look like at 85.”

He told Bezos “more people are going to be (drawn to this), it’s going to be hard to get another ticket.”

“You’ve gotta pay for the next one,” Bezos laughed.

The flight mirrored the Freedom 7 mission of Churchley’s father, who rocketed away from Cape Canaveral on May 5, 1961, on a dramatic 15-minute sub-orbital flight to become the first American in space, the second overall after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin beat NASA to the punch three weeks earlier.

Shepard went on to walk on the moon as commander of the Apollo 14 mission in 1971, famously hitting a golf ball during a moonwalk.

Churchley told Bezos she thought about her father’s Mercury flight, tightly strapped into a cramped capsule with a tiny window while she was able to float free of her seat and take in panoramic views of Earth below.

“He didn’t get to enjoy any of what I was (enjoying),” she told Bezos. “He was working.”

“It was all business,” Bezos agreed.

“Right, he had to do it himself. I went along for the ride. … Blue Origin is the best.”

Churchley and Strahan, a retired Hall of Fame professional football player and co-anchor of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” flew as guests of Blue Origin and Amazon-founder Bezos.

Their four crewmates bought their tickets for undisclosed amounts. Blue Origin does not discuss pricing and so far, no passengers have volunteered any details. But Lane Bess, presumably joking, said after landing, “I’m going to do it again. Get me in line!”

The 19th New Shepard mission — NS-19 — was Blue Origin’s third flight with passengers on board, and the first with a full six-member crew. They called themselves the “Original Six” a play on NASA’s “Original Seven” Mercury astronauts.

Bezos, his brother Mark, 82-year-old aviation pioneer Wally Funk and Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen took off July 20 on the company’s first piloted New Shepard flight. A second launch on Oct. 13 carried actor William Shatner, a Blue Origin executive and two entrepreneurs to space.

“What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine,” Shatner, on the verge of tears, told Bezos after the flight. “I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. I just, it’s extraordinary, extraordinary. I hope I never recover from this, I hope that I can maintain what I feel now, I don’t want to lose it.”

Saturday’s NS-19 mission was the 26th crewed sub-orbital flight since Alan Shepard’s pioneering Mercury mission and the 7th in the competition between Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which offers sub-orbital flights aboard a winged spaceplane.

Virgin has launched eight pilots and other company officials, including Branson, on four flights since December 2018 and plans to begin commercial service next year. Blue Origin has now launched three crewed flights carrying 14 passengers, including seven who bought tickets.

With Saturday’s flight, 609 individuals have now flown in space. Of that total, 36 made sub-orbital flights, including six who also flew in orbit, and 41 have flown commercially.