Jim Kitchen, professor at UNC, becomes an astronaut during a space flight

Atop a cloud of fire erupting from an automated rocket, UNC-Chapel Hill professor and entrepreneur Jim Kitchen flew into space and then returned Thursday, Make a dream come true that he has since he saw NASA’s Apollo rockets launch as a child.

Kitchen sat in a gumball-shaped capsule of a rocket as part of Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew mission, which lasted about 10 minutes.

“It was an out-of-body experience,” Kitchen said, standing outside the capsule in the West Texas desert after returning from space.

After liftoff, the six-person crew traveled 2,300 miles per hour in the automated space vehicle in the face of strong g-forces along the way.

“And you feel every moment of that,” Kitchen said.

They went about 65 miles above the earth to pass the Kármán Line, which is the official international boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

“It’s just breathtaking”

Once there, time stands still, Kitchen said.

“It’s like that moment in time when you see this beautiful earth and the darkness of the universe,” Kitchen said.

He said it was the blackest black he had ever seen, an “eternal black”.

“It’s breathtaking,” Kitchen said.

They floated in zero gravity for a few minutes and gazed out the windows at the planet and space before strapping in for the parachute trip.

After a sonic boom, the reusable rocket lands powerfully, yet gracefully, in the center of a target. The engineering feat seemed effortless.

Moments later, the capsule carrying the newly created astronauts deployed its parachutes and landed in the Texas desert. The trip took just over 10 minutes from takeoff to touchdown.

An avid traveler (and Tar Heel fan!)

Kitchen has traveled to all 193 countries, which are represented in the 10 passports he took with him into space. This trip will symbolize the 194th, he said.

He exited the pod waving his “194” flag, then embraced his wife, Susan, who was there to welcome him to earth.

She and family and friends of other crew members watched the liftoff from a Blue Origin facility about two miles from the launch site.

The trip wouldn’t have been complete without a few shouts of “Go Tar Heels!” after touchdown – a nod to the university and its men’s basketball team playing a historic NCAA Final Four game against arch-rival Duke on Saturday.

“Being able to go into space and see this planet without borders, I think is so meaningful, especially considering everything the world is going through right now,” Kitchen said in a pre-launch video.

Crew of six, but no Pete Davidson

Kitchen was part of the 6-member crew that trained at Blue Origin’s launch facility in Texas before making the trip to space.

Gary Lai, one of Blue Origin’s first 20 employees; Dr. George Nield, president of Commercial Space Technologies, LLC; entrepreneur and angel investor Marty Allen; and husband and wife Sharon and Marc Hagle joined Kitchen. Sharon is an educator and philanthropist, and Marc is president and CEO of real estate company Tricor International LLC.

Originally a “Saturday Night Live” comedian Pete Davidson was to be a passengerbut had to give up and Lai took his place.

This was New Shepard’s 20th mission and fourth manned spaceflight.

blue original flight pattern.JPG
Blue Origin New Shepard space mission astronaut flight pattern. blue origin

When Kitchen returns to campus, it will have memories for past and future students of UNC-CH’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Kitchen will distribute space sunflower seeds to “sow the seed that anything is possible,” he said.

Kitchen also printed custom stickers that say “This sticker flew to space” and “My teacher went to space and all I got was this lousy sticker.”

He teaches two undergraduate entrepreneurship classes in the fall. Any UNC-CH student can join, even if it’s just to get a sticker that’s gone into space.

This story was originally published March 31, 2022 10:03 a.m.

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer in the Investigative and Corporate Team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named the Education Writers Association’s 2019 Finalist for Digital Storytelling.
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