UPDATE #3: VAN HORN, Texas — Football star and TV celebrity Michael Strahan caught a ride to space with Jeff Bezos’ rocket-launching company Saturday, sharing the trip with the daughter of America’s first astronaut.
“TOUCHDOWN has a new meaning now!!!” he tweeted after landing.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket blasted off from west Texas, sending the capsule on a 10-minute flight with the two VIP guests and four paying customers. Their automated capsule soared to an altitude of 66 miles (106 kilometers), providing a few minutes of weightlessness before parachuting into the desert. The booster also came back to land successfully.
It was five minutes and 50 miles (187 kilometers) shorter than Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on May 5, 1961. His eldest daughter, Laura Shepard Churchley, took along a tiny piece of his Freedom 7 capsule as well as mementos from his Apollo 14 moonshot. She also packed some golf balls; her dad hit a couple on the lunar surface.
A co-host of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Strahan bubbled over with excitement in updates for the show all week. He took along his Super Bowl ring and retired New York Giants jersey No. 92. Bezos stashed a football on board that will go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As soon as he emerged from the capsule, Strahan said he wanted to go again. But Bezos joked he’d have to buy his own ticket next time.
In a video he posted later, Strahan called the experience surreal and unbelievable: “Wow, that’s all I can say. Wow.”
At the launch facility near Van Horn, Bezos had “Light this candle” painted on the launch tower’s bridge, borrowing from Alan Shepard’s famous gripe from inside Freedom 7 as the delays mounted: “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”
Shepard Churchley — who volunteered for Blue Origin’s third passenger flight — borrowed her late father’s phrase, yelling “Let’s light this candle!” while awaiting takeoff. Fierce wind held up her flight for two days.
She heads the board of trustees for the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.
“I thought about Daddy coming down and thought, gosh he didn’t even get to enjoy any of what I’m getting to enjoy,” Shepard Churchley said following touchdown. “He was working. He had to do it himself. I went up for the ride!”
Saturday’s launch marks the last one this year by private U.S. companies as space tourism finally takes off. Virgin Galactic kicked it off in July, sending up its billionaire founder, Richard Branson, followed by Blue Origin and SpaceX. So many are flying that the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday it will no longer designate who is a commercial astronaut or give out wings.
Bezos, who founded Amazon six years before Blue Origin, was on his company’s debut launch in July. The second, in October, included actor William Shatner — Captain James Kirk of TV’s original “Star Trek.” The late Leonard Nimoy’s daughter sent up a necklace with a “Vulcan Salute” charm on Saturday’s flight, in honor of the show’s original Mr. Spock.
Among the the four space tourists paying unspecified millions each were the first parent-child combo: financier Lane Bess and his son Cameron. Also flying: Voyager Space chairman and CEO Dylan Taylor and investor Evan Dick.
Blue Origin dedicated Saturday’s launch to Glen de Vries, who launched into space with Shatner, but died one month later in a plane crash.
UPDATE #2: "Good Morning America" co-anchor Michael Strahan and the Blue Origin crew of astronauts successfully blasted off to space and back to Earth aboard New Shepard on Saturday morning.
The Blue Origin capsule landed in the west Texas desert after the short flight to space with Strahan and Alan Shepard’s daughter.
The Dec. 11 mission was the rocket's third human flight this year and marked the first with a full astronaut manifest of six crew members in the capsule, according to Blue Origin.
UPDATE #1: NFL great Michael Strahan is on his way to his space - with a football. Jeff Bezos' rocket company, Blue Origin, launched the former NFL player and co-host of ABC's “Good Morning America” on Saturday morning from west Texas.
Five others joined him on the planned 10-minute flight, including the eldest daughter of the first American in space, Alan Shepard. Blue Origin's rocket is named after her father.
After the flight, the football on board will go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's the third time Blue Origin has flown passengers in the automated capsule.
ORIGINAL REPORT: VAN HORN, Texas -- Jeff Bezos' rocket company, Blue Origin, will send Good Morning America host Michael Strahan, the daughter of famed astronaut Alan Shepard, and four paying customers on a supersonic joy ride to the edge of space.
Liftoff is slated for Saturday morning from the Blue Origin launch facilities near the rural town of Van Horn, where Bezos owns a sprawling ranch.
All about this launch
Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, whose father Alan Shepard went on a suborbital flight in 1961 and later walked on the moon, will be joined by investors Dylan Taylor, Evan Dick, and Lane Bess, as well as Bess' adult child, Cameron Bess. Blue Origin said that Strahan and Shepard Churchley will be "honorary guests," much like the last celebrity Blue Origin sent to the edge of space, William Shatner, and have not paid for their tickets.
This flight will mark the first time that Blue Origin will fill all six seats on its New Shepard rocket and capsule, which is named for Alan Shepard. On the company's two previous flights — including the July flight that sent Bezos himself to space — only four of the seats were taken up.
That means the passengers will have a bit less wiggle room than prior customers, especially Strahan, who is six feet, five inches tall.
Strahan announced his plans to join the flight during a segment on Good Morning America last month, noting that Blue Origin had him measured for his flight suit and had him test out one of the New Shepard capsule's seats to ensure he'd fit.
Strahan spent 15 season in the NFL, all of them with the New York Giants, where he won the Super Bowl with them in 2007. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.
The flight will follow a similar profile to Shatner's flight and Bezos before him, spending just 10 minutes off the ground.
Suborbital flights differ greatly from orbital flights of the type most of us think of when we think of spaceflight. Blue Origin's New Shepard flights will be brief, up-and-down trips, though they will go more than 62 miles above Earth, which is widely considered to be the edge of outer space.
Orbital rockets need to drum up enough power to hit at least 17,000 miles per hour, or what's known as orbital velocity, essentially giving a spacecraft enough energy to continue whipping around the Earth rather than being dragged immediately back down by gravity.
Suborbital flights require far less power and speed. That means less time the rocket is required to burn, lower temperatures scorching the outside of the spacecraft, less force and compression ripping at the spacecraft, and generally fewer opportunities for something to go very wrong.
New Shepard's suborbital flights hit about about three times the speed of sound — roughly 2,300 miles per hour — and fly directly upward until the rocket expends most of its fuel. The crew capsule will then separate from the rocket at the top of the trajectory and briefly continue upward before the capsule almost hovers at the top of its flight path, giving the passengers a few minutes of weightlessness.
The New Shepard capsule will then deploy a large plume of parachutes to slow its descent to less than 20 miles per hour before it hits the ground.
The big picture
This will mark the third of what Blue Origin hopes will be many space tourism launches, carrying wealthy customers to the edge of space. It could be a line of business that helps to fund Blue Origin's other, more ambitious space projects, which include developing a 300-foot-tall rocket powerful enough to blast satellites into orbit and a lunar lander.
It's not clear how much money the paying customers on Saturday's flight shelled out for their seats. Blue Origin has not publicly identified a ticket price, though the company did host an auction earlier this year to sell an extra seat alongside Bezos during his July flight.
The winner of that auction agreed to fork over a whopping $28 million for the seat, but that still-anonymous individual opted not to take the ride just yet. Oliver Daemen, then an 18-year-old whose father was a runner-up in the ticket auction, stepped in instead.
Taylor, who will ride alongside Strahan and Shepard on today's flight, said that he also participated in the auction but didn't win. Blue Origin later reached out to offer him a seat, however. He declined to say how much he ultimately paid for his ticket, noting that Blue Origin asks its passengers to sign non-disclosure agreements that preclude customers from talking about certain aspects of the launch.
But Taylor, the chairman and CEO of space investing firm Voyager, did pledge to donate an equivalent amount of money to charity — including donations to organizations that promote access to space for disabled people and provide fellowships to women and people of color in the aerospace industry.
Taylor wants other wealthy individuals who buy flights to space to do something similar, taking after billionaire Shift4 CEO Jared Isaacman's decision to make his three-day excursion to space aboard a SpaceX rocket into a charity fundraiser for St. Jude to which Isaacman donated $200 million.
That's the model Taylor hopes everyone will follow. He said he plans to encourage his fellow paying customers on Saturday's Blue Origin flight to do the same.
"My guess is, it's going to be $300 or $400 million spent on commercial spaceflight in the next few years," Taylor said. "And the people that can afford these tickets can afford twice the ticket, right? I mean, it's not like they're putting their last dollar to buy a space ticket. So that's kind of why I want to do the call to action."