Jeff Bezos' rocket company Blue Origin launched its fourth crewed New Shepard flight Thursday, a 10-minute thrill ride to the edge of space carrying the spacecraft's chief designer and five entrepreneur/adventurers, including a husband and wife who shared an emotional kiss on the high frontier.
Running two days late because of high winds at the company's West Texas launch site, the stubby New Shepard rocket's hydrogen-fueled main engine roared to life at 9:58 a.m. EDT, throttled up to full thrust and boosted the spacecraft away atop a jet of flaming exhaust.
Gary Lai, one of Blue Origin's first employees and the architect of the New Shepard program, was added to the crew in place of comedianafter a launch delay and schedule conflict forced the "Saturday Night Live" star to withdraw.
Joining Lai for the sub-orbital flight were philanthropists and space enthusiasts Marc and Sharon Hagle; University of North Carolina professor and world traveler Jim Kitchen; George Nield, president of Commercial Space Technologies and a former manager with NASA and the FAA; and "angel investor" Marty Allen.
An in-cabin video released after the flight showed the crew cavorting in weightlessness, marveling at the view while the Hagles took a moment to share a heartfelt hug and kiss.
"Oh, my gosh, it was amazing," she said of the flight. "I can't wait to get home and share it with all the kids."
"When the engine ignited, my energy level just exploded," her husband said. "And then when you get to outer space and you start seeing the blue marble, as everybody describes it, in the black of space, there's no way of describing it. Our grandkids have asked us about it ... and it's just hard to describe." ,
"And it was great having a partner with you!" Sharon Hagle said.
Despite a few unexplained holds in the countdown that held up launch by more than 45 minutes, it appeared to be smooth sailing Thursday as the reusable rocket and crew capsule raced straight up into a clear blue sky.
The computer-controlled New Shepard separated from its booster at an altitude of about 45 miles and continued coasting upward, reaching an altitude of nearly 66 miles, four miles higher than the internationally recognized "boundary" between the discernible atmosphere and space.
Weightless after booster separation, the passengers were able to unstrap and float about the cabin for three to four minutes as they arced over the top of the trajectory.
Theis equipped with the largest windows of any operational spacecraft in the world, giving the crew spectacular hemispheric views of the Earth below and the deep black of space above as it reached the top of its trajectory and began the long plunge back to the launch site.
"Let me tell you, that was an out-of-body experience," Kitchen said after landing. "You're going 2,300 miles an hour, and you feel every bit of that. And then (you get to the top) and time stops. ... You see this beautiful Earth and the blackness of the Universe, and it's the blackest black I have ever seen, it is just breathtaking. And wow, that was a moment. That was a moment."
The booster followed a similar trajectory as the capsule, maintaining its tail-down orientation as it homed in on its landing pad two miles from where it took off. Nearing the ground, the rocket's BE-3 main engine re-ignited, four landing legs deployed and the booster settled to touchdown in a cloud of dust.
The crew capsule followed two minutes later, descending under three large parachutes to a walking-pace landing cushioned by powerful air jets an instant before touchdown at 10:08 a.m. EDT. Mission duration: 10 minutes and four seconds.
The launching marked Blue Origin's 20th New Shepard flight, its fourth with passengers on board and the 24th non-government commercial spaceflight overall.
Before the first crewed launch of a New Shepard, Lai described the spacecraft as "the safest human spaceflight vehicle ever designed or built or operated."
"We are going to ramp up operations," Lai told CBS News at the time. "We're going to have dozens and eventually hundreds and thousands of astronauts, we hope, fly on New Shepard."
As for how reality matched his expectations?
"It was more intense than I thought it would be," he said. "I've obviously been thinking about what this experience would be like for our astronauts and to experience myself was a joy. It was 10 times more intense than I thought it would be, or anything that I've ever experienced in my life, physically, mentally, emotionally."
Thursday's flight was Blue Origin's first without one or more celebrities on board.
Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark and aviation pioneer Wally Funk were on board forlast July 20; of "Star Trek" fame was aboard for the second launch October 13; and TV personality Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of astronaut Alan Shepard, were on December 11.
Davidson, like Strahan, Churchley and Shatner before him, was invited to fly in what amounted to savvy marketing guaranteed to generate widespread media coverage in a high-stakes competition between Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, owned by fellow billionaire and master marketeer Richard Branson.
Virgin has launched four piloted flights of its winged spaceplane VSS Unity, most recently sending up Branson, two pilots and three company crewmates last July 11. Commercial operations are expected to start later this year.