Blue Origin gives ‘SNL’ comedian Pete Davidson’s suborbital seat to the spaceship’s chief architect

Gary Lai is the chief architect of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital launch system. (Blue Origin Photo)

The soon-to-be spaceflier who’ll replace “Saturday Night Live” comedian Pete Davidson on the crew for next week’s launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship already knows what it’s like to get ready for liftoff.

That’s because he’s Gary Lai, Blue Origin’s chief architect for the New Shepard launch system. Lai served as an almost-astronaut during last April’s rehearsal for crewed flight at the company’s Launch Site One in West Texas. That was a practice run during which Lai and a crewmate strapped into their seats in the crew capsule, but then climbed out and left the launch pad just before liftoff.

Just three months later, Blue Origin went ahead with its first-ever crewed space mission, with billionaire founder Jeff Bezos and three others on board. Two more trips followed, and now it’s Lai’s turn for real.

“I am deeply humbled, grateful and excited by the invitation to fly on New Shepard on the NS-20 mission,” Lai wrote in a posting on LinkedIn. (NS-20 refers to the fact that this will be the 20th mission for the New Shepard reusable launch system. Sixteen of those missions were uncrewed.)

Lai joined Blue Origin in 2004 and was among the Kent, Wash.-based company’s first 20 employees. He currently serves as senior director and chief architect of the New Shepard program, but he’s played roles in developing all of Blue Origin’s product lines — including its rocket engines, the New Glenn orbital-class rocket and the Blue Moon lunar landing system.

“While New Shepard may be designed for suborbital space tourism and research, at Blue Origin we made it for another purpose — to learn how to make human spaceflight routine, safe and low-cost, so we can use the effectively limitless resources of space for the benefit Earth,” Lai explained on LinkedIn.

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He said suborbital space vehicles provide a lower-cost route to gain experience with the techniques and technologies required for orbital human spaceflight.

“Because of the experience we are gaining on New Shepard, we are confident the first flight of the New Glenn orbital vehicle will be 100% successful,” Lai said.

Lai is getting his chance because Blue Origin shifted the launch date from March 23 to March 29, and as a result, Davidson was no longer able to join the crew. Although Blue Origin hasn’t provided specifics about the factors behind the cancellation, the 28-year-old actor is in the midst of filming a horror movie in New Jersey called “The Home” — and it’s likely that the film production schedule couldn’t accommodate the revised launch schedule.

Five other crew members will join Lai on the trip, following through on their previously announced reservations:

  • Sharon and Marc Hagle, who are in line to become the first married couple to go into space together since 1992. Marc is the president and CEO of Tricor International, while Sharon is the founder of SpaceKids Global.
  • Marty Allen, an angel investor and the former CEO of Party America and California Closet Company.
  • Jim Kitchen, a teacher, entrepreneur and explorer who has served on the faculty of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School since 2010.
  • George Nield, a former associate administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation who is now the president of Commercial Space Technologies.

While Lai is flying as a Blue Origin employee, the five others are paying undisclosed fares. Liftoff is currently set for 8:30 a.m. CT (6:30 a.m. PT) March 29, but that schedule can shift depending on weather or technical factors. Blue Origin plans to live-stream coverage of the launch via its website, starting at T-minus-60 minutes in the countdown.

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