Like many kids who grew up during NASA’s golden years, George Nield first turned his eyes toward the stars in the 1960s. He was 10 years old when Alan Shepard made history as the first American in space, and a decade later, Shepard was walking on the moon. Nield could not have known that one day he would buy a ticket to space on a commercial rocket named in Shepard’s honor.
“I was always fascinated by advancements in space,” says Nield, a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate who earned advanced degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering before building a long career in aerospace. Nield was with the Air Force, NASA, and Orbital Sciences Corporation before leading the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
“It used to be that working for the government was the only way to be involved with space,” says Nield. “Going forward, private industry will be playing a much bigger role.” Nield says commercial space is growing, largely because private industry is better positioned to work less expensively and with a higher level of innovation and more tolerance for risk. “Space tourism is something companies can do right now, using new sources of funding. It’s not taxpayer dollars making this happen—it’s people who can afford to buy tickets and are believers in the future of space.”
So, on March 31, 2022, Nield joined the crew of Blue Origin’s fourth manned New Shepard mission to suborbital space, NS20, making him one of fewer than 630 people in history who have traveled past the Earth’s atmosphere. Nield joined five other passengers on NS20: Marty Allen, Marc and Sharon Hagle, Jim Kitchen, and Blue Origin Chief Architect Gary Lai. The crew trained for three days in a mock-up capsule that simulated every action and sound expected to occur during flight, plus emergency situations. “When we boarded the real capsule, every detail was exactly the same, so we felt very comfortable,” says Nield. New Shepard is a fully autonomous, pilotless rocket that is monitored by mission control.
Nield enjoyed three minutes of weightlessness in space, but most of the time he was staring out his capsule window at the view. “That was the highlight,” says Nield. “It was so beautiful to see the curvature of Earth and the contrast of colors—the browns and greens of the land and the thin blue line that is the atmosphere against a sky that is the blackest black you can imagine.”
Although some may judge New Shepard’s 10-minute flights to be joyrides, Nield says data collected from these fledgling missions will ultimately lead to everyday space travel that is safe, reliable, and affordable for all. “The people who are able to pay for expensive tickets today are enabling these companies to improve development and operations, so travel will be safer and less expensive for everyone in the future.” That’s not even mentioning the practical role these flights already offer by carrying zero-gravity research payloads.
“Companies like Blue Origin are changing how people think about space travel,” says Nield. “This will one day be for everyone. In the future, the goal is to have millions of people living and working in space, for the benefit of Earth. Until then, people who buy these tickets can have that experience and then return to tell their story.”