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Blue Origin launches second crewed New Shepard mission

Blue Origin launched Star Trek actor William Shatner and three others into space on a brief suborbital flight Oct. 13, the second crewed flight of the company’s New Shepard vehicle.

New Shepard lifted off from the company’s Launch Site One in West Texas at 10:49 a.m. Eastern. The vehicle reached an estimated peak altitude of 107 kilometers before the crew capsule, RSS First Step, landed 10 minutes and 15 seconds after liftoff. The booster landed under rocket power about three minutes earlier.

The vehicle carried four people, headlined by Shatner, best known for his role as James T. Kirk on the original Star Trek television series and later movies. At 90, Shatner is now the oldest person to fly to space, breaking the record set by 82-year-old Wally Funk on the first crewed New Shepard flight July 20.

Shatner was exuberant after his flight, offering a long description of his experience to Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos during the company’s webcast. “I hope I never recover from this. I hope I maintain what I feel now,” he said. “Everybody in the world needs to do this.”

Shatner is not paying for his seat, but two others are paying undisclosed amounts to be on the flight. Chris Boshuizen is a co-founder of Earth observation company Planet and a partner at investment firm DCVC. He became the third Australian to go to space. Glen de Vries is co-founder of Medidata Solutions, a clinical research company, and became vice chair of life sciences and healthcare at Dassault Systèmes when it acquired Medidata in 2019.

The fourth person on the flight was Audrey Powers, vice president of mission and flight operations at Blue Origin and chair of the board of directors of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. She played a lead role in getting New Shepard approved to fly people. She said in a Blue Origin video that she was selected by company founder Jeff Bezos and senior leadership “to represent Team Blue and fly as the fourth astronaut” on the mission.

The launch was scheduled for Oct. 12, but the company postponed the launch a day because of winds. “The forecast two days ago told us this would a difficult day, both from the point of view of surface winds, which affect the personnel preparing the vehicle for launch, and the winds aloft,” said Nick Patrick, NS-18 lead flight director at Blue Origin and a former NASA astronaut, in a video the company released Oct. 12.

He added the company pushed back the liftoff from its originally scheduled time of 9:30 a.m. Eastern because the “tail end of today’s winds affect the rollout” early Oct. 13.

The vehicle itself was ready for launch on the originally scheduled date. Patrick said the vehicle passed a flight readiness review on Oct. 10. “Everything is in good shape for launch,” he said.

The flight is a bright spot for a company that has recently been mired in controversy. It protested NASA’s selection of SpaceX for a Human Landing System awards in April, and when the Government Accountability Office rejected that protest in July, it filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims. That has suspended work on the HLS program until Nov. 1 as the court takes up the case.

The company more recently faced accusations of a hostile workplace environment, including sexual harassment, as well as lapses in safety. Twenty-one current and former employees wrote an essay laying out those issues, including concerns that work to increase the New Shepard flight rate “was seriously compromising flight safety.” The Federal Aviation Administration said it was reviewing those claims but did not comment further.

“Safety has been baked into the design of New Shepard from day one,” said Jacki Cortese, senior manager of civil space government relations at Blue Origin, during the company’s webcast of the NS-18 launch. “It’s a robust vehicle designed with high margins. We’ve actually determined that the design can handle substantially more than what we see in flight.”

She added that external reviews of the vehicle by people with “deep experience” in spaceflight programs. “Unanimously, this team determined that New Shepard met the highest standards for certification.”

The flight was the fifth New Shepard flight this year, including three payload-only flights. That is the greatest number of flights of the suborbital vehicle the company has performed in a single year. Company executives said in July that they expected to perform two more crewed flights this year, of which this one was the first. The second, projected for December, may be the first to carry six people, the full crew complement of New Shepard.

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