Post-flight interview: Astronaut's daughter reflects on her own launch
Special feature presented by
Dec. 17, 2021
— Laura Shepard Churchley does not think of herself as being an astronaut, despite her recent flight into space.
The eldest daughter of Alan Shepard, America's first astronaut to fly into space, Churchley followed in her father's footsteps — and trajectory — lifting off on Dec. 11 aboard the New Shepard, Blue Origin's suborbital launch vehicle named after her dad. The 10-minute flight established Churchley as the 605th person (and 372nd American) to soar above Earth, but she did so without needing the months- or years-long preparation her father and his fellow astronauts had to undergo.
"From my experience, from sixth grade until Daddy passed away, and then after Daddy — actually, I have 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 on Thursday (Dec. 16), five days after she lifted off as a guest of Blue Origin on its New Shepard 19 (NS-19) spaceflight. "Because I didn't train and they trained for years for their flights."
Not that she minds others giving her the title. Upon landing, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos pinned a set of the company's astronaut wings on her flight suit and she will be among the last people to receive commercial astronaut wings as awarded by the Federal Aviation Administration. (The FAA is ending the program at the end of the year now that multiple U.S. companies are sending people into space.)
"It is fun to have people call me Astronaut Churchly and I am glad we were among the last (to get FAA wings), but I am torn, because I have a whole other definition of 'astronaut' because of all the astronauts I have known. So I don't really consider myself an astronaut."
Whatever she is called now, Churchley is certain of one thing: she greatly enjoyed being the first "real Shepard" on board the New Shepard. What started as a passing comment at a gala for the 50th anniversary of her father's Apollo 14 moon mission became the experience of her lifetime.
Churchley recounted her flight and the events that led up to it during two calls with collectSPACE, one that preceded and one that followed her launch, as well as a brief exchange beside her rocket within a few hours of her landing. Her comments here have been combined from those conversations and edited for length and clarity.
collectSPACE (cS): Before we talk about the flight itself, how did you come to be 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 put together a 50th anniversary celebration for Apollo 14, the mission when Daddy landed on the moon. The woman who started it is the granddaughter of Stuart Roosa, who was on the Apollo 14 crew as well.
It was during that celebration, when I made the comment, "Wouldn't it be nice if a real Shepard rode on the New Shepard?" and apparently somebody 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 when I received a call and they asked if I wanted to be on the next launch. I said yes.
cS: Skipping ahead to just a few days before you were scheduled to launch, you arrived at Blue Origin's Launch Site One in West Texas to undergo training. How did that go?
Churchley: We had two and a half days of pretty much eight hour days [of instruction] and it was extremely informative. Plus, we got to go into the simulator at least 20 times and run the 10 minute flight. So when I strapped into my harness on the morning of our launch, I was cool as a cucumber. I couldn't believe I knew what was going to happen before it happened. It was just like having another run in the simulator. The training was intense, but certainly worth it.
cS: I understand that the New Shepard simulator reproduces some of the sounds that you experience in flight, but what about the G-forces (the force of gravity)?
Churchley: They told us about it. Going up, it was like two G's [twice the force of gravity]. I could lift my hands off of the armrest and I really didn't feel it in my chest because, while we were not prone, we we were not sitting straight up and that helped.
Coming down, though, it was 6.5 G's and I couldn't lift my arms off of the armrest. I could feel this heavy, heavy pressure on my chest. So I took as big a breath as I could and I held it, because I knew it was only going to be like that for 30 seconds.
Churchley: Well, we were told about it during our training on the morning before we were originally scheduled to launch and so everyone was picking up their phones to call the people they had coming so that they could redo their schedules and it was quiet. It was just quiet and we all were a little unhappy. But as soon as we took off our flight suits and got into our street clothes, we found things to do.
I went for [an airplane] flight with [crewmate] Evan Dick, and our trainer, Kevin, and we flew for over an hour. Evan made us weightless [by flying parabolas], which was fun. And then after we returned, we went to lunch and got a golf game going with [our crewmate] Michael [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. I've never played a desert course before. It's a bit different looking of a course than what I'm used to, but we had a wonderful time.
And so the break was welcome, because we had been going straight for four days. It was just perfect. It's just what everybody needed. And then we went right back into a half day of training the next day. And then we shot off, and everybody was perfectly content because we knew what was going to happen.
cS: You mentioned being "as cool as a cucumber" on the day of the launch. How did your feelings that morning compare to 60 years ago, when from a boarding school in St. Louis you watched your dad lift off on his first spaceflight?
Churchley: It's usually harder for people on the ground to watch a launch. I was in the headmaster's house with the Dean of Girls, the Dean of Boys, all of the house mothers, the principal of the school, the president of the corporation — all of the people that an eighth grade person did not want to have to talk too long. They put me on a piano bench in front of cute little black and white TV.
And I leaned forward really close to the television and I said, "Daddy, please don't mess up." But I knew he'd be fine. He had talked to us throughout the two years of his training and I knew NASA was going to bring him home safely, so there was nothing for me to worry about.
cS: Let's step through your own launch. Did the ascent meet your expectations?
Churchley: The launch was very exciting. You could feel the strength of the rocket taking off. It was just so powerful. That was something that they couldn't simulate in training. It kind of reminded me of driving with Daddy in the Corvette, when he'd step on the accelerator and my head would go back into the chair. It was very exhilarating.
The only thing that was a little spooky is that it launches at an angle. It doesn't go straight up. And so there were about eight seconds where we all were kind of hesitant because it was a feeling we hadn't had before. It wasn't going straight and so we were a little concerned about that, but after about eight seconds it straightened out and everything was fine. [cS note: The angle is to allow the rocket to clear the tower.]
cS: Next came stage separation, when the booster dropped away from your crew capsule. From that point on, you coasted up into space.
Churchley: They tried to simulate for us the noise [of the separation], but it was a lot louder. We were anticipating a noise, so just because it was louder didn't bother us. It was fine.
But then we couldn't sense if we were going up or we were going down. It was as if we were just holding still. At least that's what it felt like. But we were going up, so it worked out fine. And then weightlessness was just really, really 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 sensation. Then [mission control] alerted us we were going to be weightless so get ready to get out of the chair.
cS: And so you unbuckled and then what?
Churchley: I let go of everything and I was just lifted up out of my seat. I then did hang 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 get my legs up because it's just a small 12 feet [3.7 m] diameter. I thought maybe it would be different when I was weightless, and it was! All I did was put my hands down 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 got to do some somersaults. Finally, I thought I should look out the window. The black was just incredible, it makes Earth looks so tiny. I thought possibly I would be seeing stars, but there was too much light, so we didn't see any stars. But it is pretty spectacular because it is inviting. You know, "Come on, get your flashlight and come out here and let me show you what I have out here..."
cS: Were you able to recognize any landmarks? Were you able to see the Gulf of Mexico? Or looking out over West Texas, was it all land?
Churchley: I didn't recognize anything. There was a cloud cover.
The spacecraft is turning the whole time so at the time I went to look at the window, all I saw were clouds. I was a little upset about that. But [crewmate] Dylan Taylor was behind me and he said he saw the Rocky Mountains. He was looking longer than I.
cS: Your father famously said, "What a beautiful view!" Can you expand on that based on your own view?
Churchley: "It was beautiful, but it also was a similar view to what we have all seen from the International Space Station. They [the astronauts on the station] have sent some absolutely phenomenal photographs. Daddy saw as much as I saw. My view was lovely, but I have seen beautiful shots from the International Space Station.
cS: Are you saying that the view was spoiled by the space station photography? From only the handful of people who have flown on Blue Origin, there seems to be this promise of the view being transformational. You, however, compare it to the images we have all seem from the ISS. Was there something about seeing it with your own two eyes out the window?
Churchley: Well, it's huge when you're looking out the window. When you're looking at a picture that's totally different, but I kind of knew what it was going to look like. I just didn't expect the expanse. The black was just everything you could see and I was surprised at that.
I also saw the little blue line that is the atmosphere, which was beautiful. It looked a little bigger than I thought it would.
cS: This was the first New Shepard flight with all six seats filled. Some speculated that it would be crowded in the cabin. How did you find the available "space" given the five others on board?
Churchley: It was all right. Everybody was very cautious and careful not to stick their feet in somebody's space or anything like that. Somehow we were able to do whatever it was that we wanted to do. There were several of us doing somersaults. Somebody did it high, somebody did it down low, somebody did it in the middle. So we were just aware of everyone.
If we had 5 to 10 minutes of weightlessness, then we would have wanted a larger space. But for the three minutes that we had, it was perfect.
cS: Speaking of the six, we heard you and your crewmates referred to as "The Original Six." Was that your idea?
Churchley: I think I mentioned it, and then after a couple of days somebody said, you know, "Original Six," that's good. And then everybody played it through again, so I think it was a group decision. I liked it just because of [my father being one of] "Original Seven."
cS: Blue Origin released a video showing you and your crewmates tossing around small blue footballs. Whose idea what that?
Churchley: It was our idea. We initially thought we wanted a ball of some type and then decided to do a football because Michael [Strahan] was a football player. Blue Origin found them for us.
cS: So as your three minutes come to a close, how did you know it was time to get back into your seat?
Churchley: They [Blue Origin's flight controllers] gave us a minute warning so you could do it right away. Or you could wait 30 seconds and then get in depending on how fast you could get into your seat.
cS: Did it go smoothly for you?
Churchley: I got in but I didn't get my feet locked in place as soon as I should have. So I had my left shoulder pinned down and my feet were straight up. Finally, I was able to move a little and they responded and tucked in.
I then did my waist buckle. We had to snap the waist buckle first, then the crotch buckle and then the right shoulder. I got two of those done but I couldn't find the right shoulder strap. It was supposed to be floating, but it wasn't. So all of a sudden, I'm feeling the G's and I just just stopped and waited for that to end. Then I found and buckled in my my right shoulder strap.
cS: Next up were the parachutes.
Churchley: Yes, we knew when they [the drogue chutes] were going to make their noise. And we knew when the [main] parachutes were going to make their noise when they came out. It was all was a little louder than what it had been in training, but we anticipated the sound.
cS: What was the touchdown like? Was it a soft landing?
Churchley: It was nothing. They told us that if you stand up in front of a chair and then just sit down really fast, you flop down, that's what the landing would feel like. And that's what it was. I think that we were at five miles per hour [8 kph] or something. It was harmless.
cS: Did it feel like 10 minutes? What was your sense of the time that passed?
Churchley: It seemed way too short. Way too short.
It seemed like we were in the simulator for a longer time, but it was just because we were going in and out of it to practice different activities. I just assumed that it would be a longer flight but it was the fastest 10 minutes I have ever spent.
cS: What was your family's reaction to your flight? Do any of them want to follow in your footsteps?
Churchley: I haven't really asked them that, but they were all excited about it. My son and my husband both got all teary eyed when they saw the launch, knowing I was on it, and that made me feel good.
cS: Now that you've flown, what would you tell others considering a flight on Blue Origin? Can anyone fly to space who wants to?
Churchley: I think anyone off the street can fly into space, the training is excellent. It is only a 10 minute flight.
I work out every day, so I am in good shape. There might be some people who couldn't do the harnesses; I had a problem with the harness. But that would be the only concern I would have. I think anyone can go into space on Blue Origin's New Shepard.
cS: So now that it has been several days, what stands out most to you?
Churchley: There's so much. Our crew, the way we grew together as a team is one. The launch taking off was the most exhilarating part. Weightlessness... there are just so many factors.
The one thing, if I look back, I can say in conversation, "Well, you know what? The one thing I did in my life that I really, really liked was going into space."
collectSPACE is thankful to 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 on Blue Origin's New Shepard launch vehicle.
With her hair floating in the weightless environment of space, Laura Shepard Churchley looks out one of the large windows aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard capsule during the NS-19 suborbital flight on Dec. 11, 2021. (Blue Origin)
Laura Shepard Churchley joins her New Shepard 19 crewmates, including "Good Morning America" co-anchor Michael Strahan (to her left), to answer reporters' questions at the landing pad where their booster returned to Earth on Dec. 11, 2021. (collectSPACE)
Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket lifts off from Launch Site One in West Texas with Laura Shepard Churchley and five crewmates on Dec. 11, 2021. (collectSPACE)
Blue Origin's New Shepard crew capsule, RSS First Step, touches down under parachutes on a cushion of air thrusters after flying Laura Shepard Churchley and a crew of five to space. (Blue Origin)
Laura Shepard Churchley exits Blue Origin's New Shepard capsule simulator after a training run prior to her spaceflight. (Blue Origin)
Laura Shepard Churchley crosses the gantry to board Blue Origin's New Shepard capsule on launch day, Dec. 11, 2021. (Blue Origin)
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos pins the company's astronaut wings on Laura Shepard Churchley's flight suit. (Blue Origin)
Laura Shepard Churchley poses for a photo before starting training for her Blue Origin New Shepard spaceflight. (Blue Origin)
Laura Shepard (Churchley) at age 14 poses with her mother Louise and the mold for her father's spacecraft couch at McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis, Missouri in 1961. (Laura Shepard Churchley)