Blue Origin flies fourth suborbital crew mission

Recovery teams meet Blue Origin’s crew capsule after landing in West Texas on Thursday. The New Shepard booster is visible on its landing pad in the background. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital launcher lofted six passengers, including the rocket’s chief designer, on an up-and-down flight to the edge of space Thursday.

After a series of countdown holds, the commercial space company launched the single-stage New Shepard rocket from West Texas at 9:58 a.m. EDT (1358 GMT; 8:58 a.m. CDT).

The mission lasted a little more than 10 minutes from liftoff until touchdown of Blue Origin’s crew capsule, which returned to the company’s sprawling test facility for landing just a couple of miles from the launch pad.

The 60-foot-tall (18-meter) reusable New Shepard rocket, powered by a BE-3 engine, launched six passengers to an altitude just above 351,000 feet (107 kilometers), the internationally-recognized boundary of space.

The flight, designated NS-20, was Blue Origin’s fourth launch to haul human passengers to suborbital space, and the 20th flight of a New Shepard rocket since 2015, including experimental test flights to prove out the system before carrying people.

The passengers on the NS-20 mission included George Nield, a longtime proponent of commercial spaceflight, and Gary Lai, a Blue Origin engineer and chief architect of the New Shepard space tourism program.

“I don’t know that words could do that justice,” Lai said after landing. “You just have to feel it.”

He described the sensation of his first flight in remarks after leaving the crew capsule, explaining how he felt as the BE-3 engine throttled down just before it cut off, allowing the passengers to unstrap from their seats and float in zero-gravity.

“I felt my skin pulling taut, and I think more dramatic than even 0G was the throttle back from 3G when we throttled down,” Lai said. “I felt like I was rising then. The entire time I was in 0G I felt like I was falling toward the ceiling. It was intense, and I did get a little bit of feeling of vertigo.

“I know most of the astronauts have said in the past that they haven’t felt nauseous, I did feel a little bit of nausea for sure,” he said.

Nield is the former head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space division, the regulatory and licensing body for commercial spaceflight operations in the United States. Before his time at the FAA, Nield worked for Orbital Sciences Corp., served as a flight test engineer at the Air Force Flight Test Center, and was manager of the flight integration office for NASA’s space shuttle program.

“I’ve really been interested in space since I was a child,” Nield said in a pre-flight interview tweeted by Blue Origin. “I used to cut out articles in the newspaper about the space camps and the Mercury astronauts.”

Lai became the third member of the Blue Origin team to fly to space on the New Shepard rocket. The company’s first mission with humans last July carried Blue Origin’s billionaire founder Jeff Bezos and three co-passengers, and a second human flight in October included Audrey Powers, the company’s vice president of New Shepard mission and flight operations, alongside actor William Shatner and two other crewmates.

The third New Shepard human flight Dec. 11 was the first to launch with a crew of six, including former NFL player and TV host Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, the daughter of late NASA astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space.

The NS-20 crew, from left to right: Gary Lai, George Nield, Jim Kitchen, Marty Allen, Sharon Hagle, and Marc Hagle. Credit: Blue Origin

“Looking out the window and seeing a black sky and the curvature of the Earth is really going to be special,” Nield said before the launch. “To be able to fly with this crew, including Gary Lai, who’s had such a major role in creating New Shepard, is just very special to me.”

In a Blue Origin corporate interview, Lai said he has worked on the New Shepard program “from the very beginning.” He was one of the first 20 Blue Origin employees, joining the company in 2004.

“I’ve been involved in every single aspect of the design and the production of the vehicles,” Lai said.

“This is a once in a lifetime, a once in a career, opportunity to follow a program from start to finish to such a major goal,” Lai said before the flight. “So I hope I will feel that it was as meaningful as the amount of time and energy that we’ve put into it.”

Lai replaced comedian Pete Davidson, who Blue Origin originally announced as a passenger on the NS-20 mission. Blue Origin said the Saturday Night Live cast member was “no longer able to join” the mission after a launch delay from March 23.

Marty Allen, another NS-20 crew member, is a turnaround CEO and angel investor from California. Jim Kitchen is a teacher and entrepreneur from North Carolina who has visited all 193 U.N.-recognized countries.

Sharon and Marc Hagle, a Florida couple, rounded out the NS-20 crew.

Sharon Hagle is founder of SpaceKids Global, a nonprofit aimed at inspiring children to excel in science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics. Her husband, Marc, is president and CEO of the real estate firm Tricor International.

This diagram illustrates the flight profile for a typical New Shepard launch and landing. Credit: Blue Origin

The capsule that flew on the NS-20 mission is named “RSS First Step,” with RSS standing for Reusable Spaceship. The rocket is Tail No. 4 in Blue Origin’s fleet.

Powered by a hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine, the single-stage New Shepard booster climbed through the atmosphere after taking off from Blue Origin’s launch pad. The BE-3 engine fired for more than two minutes, then the rocket separated from the crew capsule before coasting to their apogee altitude and beginning their descent back to Earth.

The booster stage deployed drag brakes, reignited the BE-3 engine, and extended a landing gear before touching down on a landing pad just north of the launch site. The capsule, meanwhile, unfurled three main parachutes and fired braking rockets to cushion the landing on the desert floor at Blue Origin’s remote West Texas test complex.

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