Blue Origin launches 4th crew to space

By Amy Thompson
Blue Origin's NS-20 mission successfully launched a crew of four into space on Thursday from West Texas. Photo courtesy of Blue Origin/YouTube
1 of 9 | Blue Origin's NS-20 mission successfully launched a crew of four into space on Thursday from West Texas. Photo courtesy of Blue Origin/YouTube

ORLANDO, Fla., March 31 (UPI) -- Blue Origin launched the fourth crewed mission of its New Shepard rocket Thursday morning from Texas, carrying a crew of six to the edge of space and back.

The successful liftoff followed a 48-hour delay due to poor weather conditions at the launch site.


The NS-20 mission lifted off at 8:58 a.m. CDT from the company's launch facility near Van Horn, Texas, toting five space tourists and the company's own spacecraft designer.

Flying as part of the "Roaring 20s crew," a nod to this being Blue Origin's 20th flight of the New Shepard system, is Gary Lai, one of Blue's own employees.

Lai was joined by Marty Allen, married couple Sharon Hagle and Marc Hagle, Jim Kitchen and George Nield.

"Gary [Lai] is best known as the architect of the New Shepard system," Blue Origin said in a statement. "He leads the team responsible for the design and development of many of the key safety systems on the Crew Capsule, and was among the [company's] first 20 employees."


Last week, Blue Origin announced that Lai would be flying in place of Pete Davidson, star of "Saturday Night Live," after an undisclosed schedule conflict forced the comedian to back out of the flight.

Flying on the rocket he helped design will enable both Lai and Blue Origin to evaluate the vehicle's performance and safety features, as well as the crew capsule and its capabilities, the company said.

Lai, along with Nield, flew as guests of Blue Origin, with the other four passengers having paid an undisclosed amount of money for their seats.

Nield is the president of Commercial Space Technologies, which was founded to facilitate and promote commercial space opportunities. He is also a former manager of the Flight Integration Office for NASA's Space Shuttle Program.

Mark and Sharon Hagle are the first married couple to fly together on a commercial spacecraft. Sharon founded Space for Kids, a non-profit designed to inspire students to pursue careers in the STEM industry. Mark is the CEO of a property development corporation.

Kitchen is a teacher and entrepreneur who has been a lifelong space fan and a world traveler, who has visited all 193 U.N.-recognized countries.


Rounding out the crew was Marty Allen, an angel investor and turnaround CEO.

The New Shepard system consists of a rocket and a capsule, both of which are reusable. From launch to landing, each flight lasts approximately 11 minutes, with passengers experiencing weightlessness for roughly three minutes.

Shortly after liftoff, the crew capsule separates from the rocket and descends independently under parachutes, touching down a few minutes after the booster.

Each New Shepard flight transports its customers and guests above the 62-mile Kármán line, a point in the atmosphere that's generally seen as the boundary of space by international authorities.

However, where outer space actually begins is still a topic of some debate and a source of contention among the two companies. In fact, Blue Origin's chief competitor, Virgin Galactic, flies just shy of the Kármán line, with Blue Origin CEO, Jeff Bezos, often pointing that out.

The crew capsule reached an official apogee of 347,629 feet, separating from its booster right on time before touching down at 9:07 a.m. CDT.

Once back on Earth, the passengers described the flight as an incredible out-of-body experience. "It was intense," Lai said. "I did feel a bit nauseous for sure."


"I can't put it into words," Allen added. "It was unreal."

Kitchen said the flight was breathtaking, and the views of space were some of the blackest black he's ever seen.

"Pictures don't do it justice," Nield said.


The NS-20 mission was just the fourth to carry a crew, as most of previous flights were uncrewed tests or payload research flights.

New Shepard, named for Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space, carried its first crew of passengers on July 20, 2021 -- the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing -- transporting Bezos himself; his brother Mark Bezos; Wally Funk, an 82-year old aviation pioneer; and Oliver Daemen, the company's first paying customer.

Blue Origin flew two additional crewed missions in 2021, including "Star Trek" captain William Shatner.

To date, the company has launched 22 people on a high-powered rocket ride to the edge of space and back. Company officials said that Blue Origin plans to ramp up its launch schedule, sending three times the passengers to space in the coming years.

Out-of-this-world images from space

The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA

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