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Blue Origin’s suborbital space trip brings the final frontier down to earth: How to watch the launch

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The crew for Blue Origin’s next space mission huddles in advance of their launch on a New Shepard suborbital spaceship. From left: Gary Lai, George Nield, Jim Kitchen, Marty Allen, Sharon Hagle and Marc Hagle. (Blue Origin Photo)

When Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture sends its next crew on a suborbital ride to space, as early as Thursday, there won’t be any TV celebrities on board. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

“I’m personally seeing more and more people I know flying on each flight … and that’s more exciting to me than celebrity fliers,” Laura Seward Forczyk, the owner of the Atlanta-based space consulting firm Astralytical, told GeekWire in an email. “People in my network flying makes it feel much closer and more accessible.”

Folks who aren’t space consultants, or space geeks, might be hard-pressed to name a single member of the sextet — although they’d probably remember that “Saturday Night Live” comedian Pete Davidson gave up his seat due to a scheduling conflict.

To fill that seat, Blue Origin chose its own Gary Lai. He’s the chief architect for the New Shepard suborbital spaceship that’s due to take off Thursday morning from the company’s Launch Site One amid the rangeland of West Texas. Assuming all systems are go, launch coverage via Blue Origin’s website and YouTube begins at 7:10 a.m. CT (5:10 a.m. PT), with liftoff expected around 8:20 a.m. CT (6:20 a.m. PT).

This mission, known as NS-20, marks the 20th outing for Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard launch system and the fourth crewed flight.

Headliners for the three previous trips included Jeff Bezos and aviation pioneer Wally Funk for last July’s debut; Star Trek captain William Shatner for October’s sequel; and Laura Shepard Churchley, the eldest daughter of pioneer NASA astronaut Alan Shepard, plus morning-show anchor Michael Strahan for December’s three-peat.

On the NS-20 mission, Lai will be joined by Marc and Sharon Hagle, the first married couple to fly in space together since 1992; George Nield, a former Federal Aviation Administration official who was involved in regulating commercial spaceflight; Jim Kitchen, a teacher and entrepreneur from North Carolina; and Marty Allen, an angel investor and former CEO of Party America.

As an insider and last-minute substitute, Lai is flying gratis, but his five crewmates are paying undisclosed fares for their ride.

They’ll follow the same flight plan used for the other three crewed missions: New Shepard’s booster is due to autonomously lift off and send the crew capsule to an altitude beyond 100 kilometers (62 miles), providing a few minutes of weightlessness and a commanding view of the terrain below. The booster is designed to land itself while the capsule floats down separately to a parachute-aided landing in the West Texas desert.

Former NASA astronaut Nicholas Patrick, who serves as Blue Origin’s lead flight director, said in a pre-launch video that safety is of paramount concern for every flight — and he said his team has built up a solid track record over the seven years of the New Shepard program.

“We’re 20 missions into the program,” he said. “This is our fourth human flight on New Shepard, and it feels like spaceflight at Blue Origin is becoming routine. That’s the dream here at Blue.”

The idea that crewed spaceflight could ever become routine may spark cautionary caveats from some quarters of the space industry — due to past tragedies such as the catastrophic loss of two space shuttles and the fatal breakup of Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo rocket plane.

“I don’t think spaceflight is anywhere near routine, even after 60 years,” Astralytical’s Laura Seward Forczyk said. “Commercial human spaceflight is an industry in its infancy. Blue Origin flights can and should be seen as experimental.”

But Forczyk said each successful space mission paves the way for the next one. “I believe the move to operational spaceflight makes each flight safer, not less so,” she said. In her view, the trend toward flying the not-quite-so-rich and not-quite-so-famous is a natural part of the spaceflight industry’s evolution.

“Last year, these spaceflights were flashy with billionaires and celebrities on their manifests. The intent was to make a splash — we are open for business! Celebrity guests weren’t paying customers,” Forczyk said. “Now that Blue Origin passenger flights are operational, it’s a business to provide an experience for paying customers. Not every flight needs to have a household name on board.”

Here’s the countdown schedule for NS-20, leading to an anticipated T-zero of 8:20 a.m. CT (6:20 a.m. PT) Thursday. Holds in the count could push the launch time later. Streaming coverage starts at 7:10 a.m. CT (5:10 a.m. PT):

  • T-minus-7.5 hours: Rocket rollout.
  • T-minus-3 hours: Propellant load.
  • T-minus-45 minutes: Crew heads to pad.
  • T-minus-35 minutes: Capsule ingress.
  • T-minus-24 minutes: Hatch closed.
  • T-minus-10 minutes: Final “go” for launch.

Update for 5:30 a.m. PT March 31: We’ve updated this report with revised times for the start of countdown coverage and anticipated liftoff.

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