Blue Origin begins its fourth manned flight to the edge of space

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin launched its fourth manned New Shepard flight Thursday — a 10-minute rocket-powered roller coaster ride to the edge of space and back starring five wealthy space tourists and the spacecraft’s chief designer.

Gary Lai, one of Blue Origin’s early employees and the architect of the New Shepard program, was drafted into the crew in place of the comedian Peter Davidson after a start delay and Appointment conflict forced the “Saturday Night Live” star is retiring. Blue Origin did not disclose what caused the delay or what might have been required to fix the issue.

But for Lai, going into space on a rocket he helped design gave him the opportunity to personally evaluate “the safest manned spacecraft ever designed, built or operated.”

The crew of Blue Origin’s fourth manned New Shepard flight (left to right): Jim Kitchen, Marc Hagle, Sharon Hagle, Marty Allen, George Nield and spacecraft architect Gary Lai.

Blue Origin

“We will ramp up operations,” Lai told CBS News ahead of the first manned flight of a New Shepard capsule in 2019. “We will, we hope, have tens and eventually hundreds of thousands of astronauts flying on New Shepard.”

Like all New Shepard flightsthe single-stage booster propelled the crew capsule from the lower atmosphere to an altitude of about 65 miles – just above the internationally recognized “limit” of space – and gave the passengers three to four minutes of weightlessness before re-entering the lower atmosphere.

Duration of the mission from takeoff to parachute landing: approx. 10 minutes.

US Space Blue origin
A Blue Origin New Shepard rocket launches March 31, 2022 from launch pad one in west Texas, north of Van Horn.

PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Accompanying Lai for the suborbital flight were philanthropists and space enthusiasts Marc and Sharon Hagle; Jim Kitchen, professor and entrepreneur at the University of North Carolina; George Nield, President of Commercial Space Technologies and former manager at NASA and the FAA; and “angel investor” Marty Allen.

Blue Origin and its customers don’t discuss the cost of a New Shepard seat, but prices are believed to be in the half-million dollar range, if not more. As an employee of the company, Lai presumably flew for free.

The launch marked Blue Origin’s 20th New Shepard flight and the fourth with passengers on board.

The first three manned flights were equipped with “star power”. Jeff Bezos takes off on the first piloted mission, William Shatner from ‘Star Trek’ aboard second and TV personality Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of astronaut Alan Shepard, aboard the third.

Davidson, like Strahan, Churchley and Shatner before him, was invited to fly, which meant sophisticated marketing that guaranteed widespread media coverage. How coverage of the NS-20 flight will unfold after Davidson’s retirement remains to be seen.

The NS-20 mission marked the ninth piloted commercial, non-governmental suborbital spaceflight in a high-profile competition between Bezos’ Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, owned by billionaire Richard Branson.

Virgin has recently launched four manned flights of its VSS Unity winged spaceplane Send Branson up, two pilots and three company crew members on July 11. It’s not clear when the company will operate its next flight, but three researchers will be on board, representing the Italian Air Force. Commercial passenger flights are expected to begin later this year.

Blue Origin continued the Bezos flight by launching a series of NASA experiments on an unmanned mission on Aug. 26. Then, on October 13, Shatner and three crew members were launched on the company’s 18th flight overall and second with passengers. Strahan and his crewmates followed on December 9th.

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