It was a balmy morning in the west Texas desert when Chris Boshuizen stepped into Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket capsule for a journey most of us will never experience.
He waved a quick goodbye to the Amazon billionaire and took his seat next to William Shatner as the capsule door bolted shut.
For Boshuizen, this was a dream a lifetime in the making, ever since his parents took the family to Parkes, a town in his native Australia with longstanding links to astronomy. There, staring out from the same telescope that once transmitted images from the Apollo 11 Moon landing, a curiosity for the great unknown was born.
Now, 37 years later, almost 14,000km from home and strapped to a rocket launcher, the former Nasa developer found himself seated next to Shatner – who captivated the world in his role as Captain James Kirk of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. Also onboard were Audrey Powers, a Blue Origin executive, and Glen de Vries, chief executive of the clinical research firm Medidata Solutions.
“I’m a space dork,” Boshuizen tells the Guardian days after his return to Earth. “I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut … The day I learned I was flying to space, I babbled like a boy with a new toy.”
After a lifetime of dreaming and 20 years of work, the physicist and engineer last week saw his “boyhood dream come true”, becoming the third Australian citizen to go to space.
The road to liftoff
On 9 October, Boshuizen flew from his home in San Francisco to Van Horn, a small, rural Texas town near the Mexico border. For the next five nights he would live in Bezos’ Astronaut Village, a state-of-the-art preflight residence.
All four crew members underwent days of extensive astronaut training, including flight simulations and zero-gravity workshops, that were designed to prepare the team for space flight in the lead-up to launch day.
From start to finish, every aspect of the journey was rehearsed and honed, from meetings with engineers and control teams to flight-suit fittings and emergency procedure training.
Boshuizen was awake before the sun rose on 13 October – launch day. He admits “feeling a little nervous” but any anxiety was dulled by the excitement shared between the four passengers.
“I had a little time to contemplate my mortality and assess the risk,” he says. “I’ve done all the due diligence I can.”
At T-45 minutes the crew departed the Astronaut Training Center to make the 10-minute journey to the launch pad site, chauffeured by Bezos. At nearly 20 metres tall and four metres wide, the New Shepard was a daunting sight in the sparse desert valley.
Boshuizen ascended the tower and walked across the air bridge to the crew capsule. The astronauts loaded into the 15-cubic-metre crew capsule to be strapped into their seats.
At T-25 min Boshuizen was the final passenger to board as last-minute safety checks prepared the team for liftoff. With just 15 minutes to launch, Bezos pulled the hatch closed as “sit back and relax” sounded from mission control.
“It’s like a submarine door and you hear this steel bang and they lock it down and you think ‘I’m stuck here, I’m not getting out’,” Boshuizen recalled.
Finally, a 10-second countdown boomed and the rocket propelled from the ground.
“It felt no worse than a steep airplane take off,” Boshuizen says, dispelling the idea that the sheer force of the propulsion would rattle and shake the capsule “like the movies”.
As the rocket approached the Kármán Line, the internationally recognised boundary of space at 100km above mean sea level, the capsule separated from the booster and officially sailed into space.
“It only takes four to seven minutes to get to space,” Boshuizen says, adding: “It’s very, very quick.”
Boshuizen took with him a 1.5kg cargo bag. Packed inside was a Lego figurine of an astronaut.
At 100km above mean sea level, the minifigure – a childhood toy and throwback to his lifelong fascination with space – jiggled loose and started to somersault through the cabin. Boshuizen unbuckled his seat as he, too, somersaulted in the air.
‘A stone being thrown into a river’
The three to four minutes spent without the pull of gravity were “so natural”, he says. “There’s nothing strange about it at all.”
The crew floated together to take a selfie, noses soon pressed against the windows to view the curve of earth.
“It really got me deep in the chest,” Boshuizen says. The experience was so moving the crew were sobbing.
“Seeing the edge of the atmosphere – a thin, brilliant sapphire shield around the planet – was an uncanny experience,” he adds. “Closing my eyes now, I still feel that irresistible tug … pulling my heart from my chest and out over the edge of the world.”
“I’ve watched every movie, I’ve seen every astronaut talk about space and photos of the curvature of the Earth in light of the atmosphere, the blackness of space, and I realise when I got up there those words are just completely inadequate in describing what I saw.
“It was more beautiful and more dazzling and more frightening than I ever imagined.”
The descent back to Earth was as quick as the ascent. As the capsule hit the atmosphere, Boshuizen says, he felt like a stone being thrown into a river, splashing at the surface and then floating gently to the bottom.
Just over 10 minutes after launching, the crew touched back to Earth in a cloud of dust, at 9.59am CDT.
First to meet them was Bezos, opening the hatch to the applause of waiting family and friends. Boshuizen was third to disembark as champagne bottles were popped and Bezos announced: “Welcome to a very small club.”
Boshuizen now holds the sought-after title of being among fewer than 600 people who have seen the Earth from space.
After achieving his childhood goal, Boshuizen has a new aim: to make getting to space as easy as catching a bus.
“The idea of living and working in space will become a reality,” he says. “The first 60 years of space exploration were the domain of governments – now space has become the domain of ordinary citizens.
“In just over half a century, humankind has completely changed. Things that used to take an entire country can now be done by you and me.”
Addressing critics, the astronaut is quick to dispel assertions that trips like these are nothing more than space tourism.
“It’s interesting seeing human spaceflight start with a joke and people deprecating it as just tourism because they don’t understand what’s coming next,” he says.
“This is not tourism, it’s the beginning of something really powerful. I think we are just around the corner of seeing what human spaceflight can really mean for us
“Human space exploration … [can] look weird and scary and strange to people who don’t understand, and that’s OK. My job is to hold a steady course and and not give up and keep building things that I think are valuable for you for the planet.
“It’s the beginning of something really big and I think if you fast forward 50 years we’re going to look back at 2021 as the year it all began. This is the space race version 2.0.”
It’s something the venture capitalist is particularly passionate about. “We must go to space if we are to save this Earth … If we have more information about our changing planet, we can be stewards of the planet. You can’t fix something if you don’t know about it.
“Space has always been present, the stars shine down on us as they did our ancestors … [it] begins a mere 60 miles above us but for most of human history it has remained tantalisingly out of reach. One day quite soon entire generations will look down on the Earth as the first astronauts did and fall in love again with our great blue planet, one by one.”