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Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin sends TV’s Michael Strahan and five others to space

The mission was the company’s third human spaceflight mission, and comes as it looks to more space tourism flights next year

Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of the first American in space, and Michael Strahan, a former NFL star and TV personality, launched into space on Dec. 11. (Video: Reuters)

Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin sent another crew to space on Saturday, the company’s third human spaceflight and the first with a full contingent of six people.

The launch capped a historic year for space exploration and marked the 13th human spaceflight mission this year — more than any other year.

On board the New Shepard spacecraft were four paying customers and two guests — Laura Shepard Churchley, the daughter of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and Michael Strahan, the former NFL football star turned TV personality. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

After the flight, Churchley compared her experience to her father’s, telling Bezos in comments broadcast on a live stream that unlike her father, who was working for his entire suborbital flight and remained strapped into his seat, she got to really enjoy the her time in space, floating around in zero gravity.

“I went along for the ride,” she said.

Strahan also was effusive, calling the experience “unreal.” “That was beyond,” he said, telling Bezos he wanted to do it again.

“You’ll have to pay for the next one,” Bezos responded.

The autonomous flight lifted off at 42 seconds after 10 a.m. Eastern time and reached an altitude of 66.5 miles before returning to a soft landing in the West Texas desert. Total flight time was 10 minutes and 13 seconds. (For comparison, Alan Shepard’s 1961 flight reached 116.5 miles above sea level and lasted 15 minutes and 28 seconds.)

The flight was further affirmation that Blue Origin is building a robust space tourism business capable of regularly taking paying customers higher than 60 miles, where many believe the edge of space begins. Next year, Blue Origin is planning to fly more than six times, or every other month, creating a regular cadence of spaceflights.

Jeff Bezos is sending Michael Strahan to space. But that’s not what makes this flight significant.

The flights are relatively short, suborbital jaunts that shoot straight up into space, where the passengers get a few minutes of weightlessness and see the Earth from above. Still, they can be transformative.

William Shatner, the actor who portrayed Captain Kirk on Star Trek, rhapsodized about the view after his flight in October, telling Bezos that he was “so filled with emotion about what just happened. It’s extraordinary. I hope I never recover from this.”

Passengers aboard Saturday’s flight also included Dylan Taylor, chairman and CEO of space exploration firm Voyager Space; Evan Dick, an investor, and Lane and Cameron Bess, the first parent-child pair to fly to space. After their capsule touched down in the desert, they were also emotional, laughing and cheering.

The flight came during a year in which a large number of private citizens have gone to space. Blue Origin has now flown 14 people. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic also flew two suborbital test flights this year, one with a pair of pilots, the other with two pilots and a crew of four that included Branson.

SpaceX also flew four private citizens in orbit for three days in September in what was called the Inspiration4 mission. Russia flew an actress and film producer to the International Space Station this fall, and this past week it launched a Japanese billionaire and his assistant to the station.

Earlier this month, Blue Origin won a NASA contract worth $130 million to develop the design of a space station that would ultimately replace the International Space Station. NASA also awarded contracts to two other companies: Nanoracks, for $160 million, and Northrop Grumman, for $125.6 million.

But Blue Origin has also struggled with its larger vehicle, dubbed New Glenn, which has yet to fly and has been delayed by technical challenges. It also lost out to SpaceX on a major NASA contract to develop a spacecraft capable of landing astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972.