Blue Origin's latest spaceflight featured a tribute to the people of Ukraine.
Six people flew to suborbital space Thursday (March 31) on the fourth crewed flight of Blue Origin's New Shepard vehicle. One of the passengers, professor and entrepreneur Jim Kitchen, carried with him a symbol of support and solidarity for Ukraine, which Russia invaded on Feb. 24.
"So in my passport, I brought both the Ukrainian and American flags, and I released them, just paying my respects to the situation that's occurring there now and just to let them know that our hearts collectively are with them," Kitchen told Space.com during a call with reporters after Thursday's flight.
Kitchen didn't bring just one passport on the trip; he brought 10 of them, which bear the stamps of visits to all 193 countries recognized by the United Nations. Kitchen is now the first person ever to make those international rounds on Earth and also go to space, according to Blue Origin.
Like many other space travelers, Kitchen stressed that the view from high above shows Earth as it truly is — a beautiful single entity with not a border in sight.
"We're all just people," he said. "We're governed by different leadership structures and different governments and different borders, but we're all just human. And so I just wanted to express some humanity on this flight, and let them know that we were mindful of what's occurring around us."
Kitchen was joined on Thursday's flight by four other paying customers: businessman Marty Allen; Sharon Hagle, founder of the education nonprofit SpaceKids Global; her husband Marc Hagle, the president and CEO of the property-development company Tricor International; and George Nield, the president of Commercial Space Technologies, LLC, who served as associate administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation from 2008 to 2018.
Sharon and Marc Hagle became the first married couple ever to fly together on a private spacecraft. They're not the first such duo to reach space together, however; that would be NASA astronauts Mark Lee and Jan Davis, who both flew on the space shuttle Endeavour's STS-47 mission in 1992.
The sixth passenger on Thursday's mission — known as NS-20, because it was the 20th overall spaceflight for a New Shepard vehicle — was Blue Origin employee Gary Lai, the chief architect of the New Shepard system. Lai flew for free, inheriting the seat that was originally reserved for "Saturday Night Live" star Pete Davidson, who backed out after the mission was delayed from its original March 23 target date.
NS-20 was very special for Lai, as you can imagine.
"I've obviously been thinking about what this experience will be like for our astronauts, and to experience it myself was a joy," Lai said during Thursday's postflight call. "It was 10 times more intense than I thought it would be, or anything that I've ever experienced in my life physically, mentally, emotionally."
New Shepard consists of a rocket and a capsule, both of which are reusable. The rocket comes back to Earth for a vertical, powered touchdown, and the autonomous capsule lands softly under parachutes. Each New Shepard flight lasts about 10 to 11 minutes from liftoff to capsule touchdown.
Passengers experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and get to see Earth against the blackness of space. Blue Origin has not revealed how much it's charging for a seat aboard the vehicle.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.
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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.