Laura Shepard Churchley is not sure if she is now an astronaut.
The eldest daughter of Alan Shepard, America’s first astronaut to fly into space, Churchley followed in her father’s footsteps and trajectory by taking off on December 11 aboard the New Shepard, Blue Origin’s suborbital launch vehicle that carries the name of his father. The 10-minute flight established Churchley as the 605th (and 372nd American) person to soar above Earth, but he did so without needing the months or years of preparation that his father and fellow astronauts had to go through.
“From my experience, from sixth grade until Dad passed away, and then after Dad, in fact, I’ve been aware of space and astronauts forever, and I don’t know if I feel like an astronaut,” Churchley said in an interview with collectSPACE.com on Thursday (December 16), five days after she took off as a guest of Blue Origin on her New Shepard 19 (NS-19) spaceflight. “Because I didn’t train and they trained for years for their flights.”
Related: Shepard vs New Shepard: How Astronaut’s Daughter’s Blue Origin Launch Compares
Not that he cares that others give him the title. Upon landing, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos fitted a set of the company’s astronaut wings onto his flight suit and will be among the last to receive commercial astronaut wings awarded by the Federal Aviation Administration. (The FAA will end the program by the end of the year now that several American companies are sending people into space.)
“It’s funny that people call me Astronaut Churchly and I’m glad we were among the last (to get FAA wings), but I’m heartbroken, because I have a completely different definition of ‘astronaut’ because of all the astronauts I have known So I don’t really consider myself an astronaut. “
Whatever her name is now, Churchley is certain of one thing: She greatly enjoyed being the first “real Shepard” aboard the New Shepard. What started as a passing comment at a gala celebrating the 50th anniversary of his father’s Apollo 14 lunar mission became the experience of a lifetime.
(Image credit: collectSPACE.com)
Churchley recounted his flight and the events that led to it during two calls with collectSPACE, one preceding and one following its launch, as well as a brief exchange alongside his rocket a few hours after landing. Your comments here have been combined from those conversations and edited for clarity and length.
collectSPACE (cS): Before talking about the flight itself, how did you get invited to fly with Blue Origin?
Laura Shepard Churchley: It started in June of this year. There is an organization called Back To Space that organized a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 14, the mission when Dad landed on the moon. The woman who started it is the granddaughter of Stuart Roosa, who was also on the Apollo 14 crew.
It was during that celebration that I made the comment, “Wouldn’t it be nice if a real Shepard traveled on the New Shepard?” and apparently someone knew Bezos or had a connection to him. I don’t know exactly what happened. No one has told me, but it was at the end of September that I got a call and they asked if I wanted to be on the next release. I said yes.
CS: Jumping a few days before the scheduled launch date, you arrived at Blue Origin launch site one in West Texas for training. How was that?
Churchley: We had two and a half days of almost eight hours a day. [of instruction] and it was extremely informative. Also, we have to go to the simulator at least 20 times and run the 10 minute flight. So when I put the harness on the morning of our launch, it was cool as a cucumber. He couldn’t believe he knew what was going to happen before it happened. It was like having another career in the simulator. The training was intense, but it was certainly worth it.
(Image credit: Blue Origin)
CS: I understand that the New Shepard simulator reproduces some of the sounds that you experience in flight, but what about G-forces (the force of gravity)?
Churchley: They told us. Going up, it was like two G’s [twice the force of gravity]. I was able to lift my hands off the armrest and I didn’t really feel it on my chest because even though we weren’t face down, we weren’t sitting up straight and that helped.
However, going down, it was 6.5G and I couldn’t lift my arms from the armrest. I could feel this strong pressure on my chest. So I took as deep a breath as I could and held it in, because I knew it was only going to be like this for 30 seconds.
cS: Like your father’s launch on Freedom 7, your liftoff was delayed by weather. Was he frustrated by the bush?
Churchley: Well they told us about it during our training the morning before the scheduled launch date, so everyone was picking up their phones to call people who were coming so they could redo their schedules and it was all quiet. Everything was quiet and we were all a little sad. But as soon as we took off our flight suits and put on our street clothes, we found things to do.
I went for [an airplane] I fly with [crewmate] Evan Dick, our trainer, Kevin, and we flew for over an hour. Evan made us weightless [by flying parabolas], which was fun. And then when we got back we went to lunch and started a game of golf with [our crewmate] Miguel [Strahan] and his best friend.
The nine hole golf course in Van Horn was closed that day, so someone called the mayor and the mayor went and opened the golf course for us. He had never played on a desert field before. It’s a slightly different course than I’m used to, but we had a great time.
So the break was welcome, because we had been there for four days in a row. It was just perfect. It’s just what everyone needed. And then we go back to half a day of training the next day. And then we fired, and everyone was perfectly happy because we knew what was going to happen.
CS: You mentioned that you were “as cool as a cucumber” on launch day. How did your feelings that morning compare to those of 60 years ago, when you saw your father take off from a boarding school in St. Louis on his first space flight?
Churchley: It is generally more difficult for people on the ground to see a pitch. I was in the principal’s house with the Dean of Girls, the Dean of Boys, all the mothers of the house, the principal of the school, the president of the corporation, all the people that an eighth grader did not want to have. talk too much. They put me on a piano bench in front of a nice black and white television.
And I leaned forward very close to the television and said, “Dad, please don’t screw it up.” But I knew it would be fine. He had talked to us during the two years of his training and knew that NASA would get him home safe and sound, so I had nothing to worry about.
(Image credit: collectSPACE.com)
cS: Let’s review your own release. Did the promotion meet your expectations?
Churchley: The launch was very exciting. You could feel the force of the rocket lift off. It was so powerful. That was something they couldn’t simulate in training. It reminded me of driving with Dad in the Corvette, when I would hit the gas and my head would go back to the chair. It was very inspiring.
The only thing that was a little creepy is that it is thrown at an angle. It does not go up directly. So there were about eight seconds in which we all hesitated a bit because it was a feeling that we had not had before. It wasn’t going well, so we were a bit worried about it, but after about eight seconds it straightened up and everything was fine. [cS note: The angle is to allow the rocket to clear the tower.]
cS: Then came the staging, when the thruster moved away from the crew capsule. From that moment on, you ascended into space.
Churchley: They tried to simulate the noise for us. [of the separation], but it was much stronger. We were anticipating a noise so just because it was louder it didn’t bother us. It was good.
But then we couldn’t feel if we were going up or down. It was as if we were still. At least that’s what it feels like. But we were going up so it worked well. And then the weightlessness was really a lot of fun.
cS: What was your first indication that you were floating?
Churchley: You could feel it in your arms, they were lifting up, so that was the first feeling. Then [mission control] alerted us that we were going to be weightless so be prepared to get up from the chair.
CS: So you unbuttoned and then what?
Churchley: I let everything go and they just lifted me out of my seat. Then I held on because I wasn’t sure how high I would go.
I tried doing a handstand, which I had tried to practice. [on the ground] but i couldn’t lift my legs cause it’s only 12 feet [3.7 m] diameter. I thought maybe it would be different when it wasn’t heavy, and it was! All I did was put my hands on the armrest and then my head on the seat. I don’t know how my legs got up in the air, but they did.
And then I had to do some somersaults. Finally, I thought that I should look out the window. The black was just amazing, it makes the Earth look so small. I thought I was possibly seeing stars, but there was too much light so we didn’t see any stars. But it is quite spectacular because it is attractive. You know, “Come on, take your flashlight and come here and let me show you what I have here …”
The interview continues on collectSPACE as Churchley describes his view from space, returning to Earth, and what he thought of the experience.
collectSPACE thanks RR Auction for sponsoring coverage of Blue Origin’s New Shepard-19 (NS-19) mission. The auction house is based in New Hampshire, Alan Shepard’s home state, and was behind the $ 28 million sale of the first seat of Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle.
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