Blue Origin Flies First Two Industry Insiders

Credit: Blue Origin

CAPE CANAVERAL—Blue Origin conducted its fourth crewed flight on March 31, sending five paying passengers and employee Gary Lai—the lead architect for the New Shepard transportation system—into suborbital space. 

The mission, designated NS-20, was celebrity-free and lower profile than Blue Origin’s previous crewed flights, which began on July 20, 2021, with company founder and former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos among the passengers. 

Bezos, who is personally funding Blue Origin’s ambitious space program, was on site in West Texas for New Shepard’s second and third passenger flights, which included actor/director William Shatner and Good Morning America co-host Michael Strahan, respectively, as guests.

For those missions Bezos, dressed in his flight suit, drove the crews out to the New Shepard launchpad. He helped settle the passengers into their seats, serving as an ex officio crew close-out leader in the style of Guenter Wendt. Bezos closed the hatch and was the first to greet the crews when they bounded out of the capsule 15 min. later as newly minted astronauts. 

Blue Origin had planned to include another luminary on the NS-20 mission, extending an invitation to Saturday Night Live comic Pete Davidson. But when the flight was delayed six days, Davidson canceled, citing a schedule conflict. 

That opened a seat for Lai, who joined Blue Origin in 2004 as one of its first 20 employees and led the team that designed and built New Shepard. The two-stage, fully reusable launch and landing system serves as the company’s starting point to develop the technologies needed to create and sustain communities beyond Earth. 

Lai, the senior director and chief architect of New Shepard with oversight for next-generation designs, upgrades and new product development, was not the only industry insider aboard NS-20. Among the paying passengers was George Nield, who oversaw commercial spaceflight for the FAA before becoming a private consultant. 

“I’m going to have to think more about this experience and how I might be able to help,” Nield told reporters after the flight. “I certainly want to continue to talk to industry, government and academia about how to continue this amazing momentum we’re seeing now within the commercial space arena and how we can continue to make things safer, more reliable and more cost-effective going forward. It’s all about getting more and more people to have this fantastic experience.”

Lai returned from the flight with a new appreciation of the New Shepard flight training program. “We received more than 2.5 days of training ... for an 11-min. flight,” Lai said. “That might seem like a lot, but the whole purpose was to make everything we have to do ‘muscle memory.’ 

“That’s because of what we cannot simulate in the training, which is the intensity, the fact that you might forget about everything … when the rocket lights off and you’re accelerating at 5 Gs. It is that amount of training that allowed us to use that muscle memory,” he said. 

“All of us did everything as if we were in the simulator because we had been so well trained,” Lai added. “I have much deeper appreciation for all of the thinking that went through that training program and in the end it paid off.”

Rounding out the NS-20 crew were:

• Angel investor Marty Allen, a turnaround CEO known for transforming the bankrupt California retail chain Party America into a national company. Allen also served as CEO of California Closet Co. 

• Sharon and Marc Hagle, who became the first married couple to fly on a commercial space vehicle. (Former NASA space shuttle astronauts Jan Davis and Mark Lee were the first married couple to fly in space.) Sharon Hagle is the founder of SpaceKids Global, an educational outreach nonprofit. Marc Hagle is president and CEO of Tricor International, which develops residential and commercial properties.

• Jim Kitchen, a teacher, entrepreneur and world explorer who has visited all 193 U.N.-recognized countries. Kitchen is a faculty member at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Senior Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.