Football star and TV celebrity Michael Strahan caught a ride to space Saturday with Jeff Bezos' rocket-launching company, sharing the trip with the daughter of America's first astronaut.
Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket blasted off from West Texas, sending the capsule on a 10-minute flight with the two VIP guests and four paying customers. Their automated capsule soared to an altitude of 66 miles, providing a few minutes of weightlessness before parachuting into the desert. The booster also came back to land successfully.
It was five minutes and 50 miles shorter than Alan Shepard's Mercury flight from Florida's Cape Canaveral on May 5, 1961. His eldest daughter, Laura Shepard Churchley, took along a tiny piece of his Freedom 7 capsule as well as mementos from his Apollo 14 moonshot. She also packed some golf balls; her dad hit a couple on the lunar surface.
A co-host of ABC's "Good Morning America," Strahan bubbled over with excitement in updates for the show all week. He took along his Super Bowl ring and retired New York Giants jersey No. 92. Bezos stashed a football on board that will go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"It was unreal," Strahan said after emerging from the capsule.
He said he wants to go again -- but Bezos joked that he'd have to buy his own ticket next time.
Bezos, who has flown to space in the same capsule, accompanied the six passengers to the launch pad near Van Horn and greeted them afterward. He had "Light this candle" painted on the launch tower's bridge, borrowing from Alan Shepard's famous gripe from inside Freedom 7 as the delays mounted: "Why don't you fix your little problem and light this candle?"
Shepard Churchley -- who volunteered for Blue Origin's third passenger flight -- borrowed her late father's phrase, yelling "Let's light this candle!" while awaiting takeoff. Fierce wind held up the flight for two days.
She heads the board of trustees for the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.
"I thought about Daddy coming down and thought, gosh he didn't even get to enjoy any of what I'm getting to enjoy," Shepard Churchley said after touchdown. "He was working. He had to do it himself. I went up for the ride!"
Saturday's launch marks the last one this year by private U.S. companies as space tourism finally takes off. Virgin Galactic kicked it off in July, sending up its billionaire founder, Richard Branson, followed by Blue Origin and SpaceX. So many are flying that the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that it will no longer designate who is a commercial astronaut or give out wings.
Bezos, who founded Amazon six years before Blue Origin, was on his company's debut launch in July. The second, in October, included actor William Shatner -- Captain James T. Kirk of TV's original "Star Trek." The daughter of the late Leonard Nimoy sent up a necklace with a "Vulcan Salute" charm on Saturday's flight in honor of the show's original Mr. Spock.
Among the four space tourists paying unspecified millions each were the first parent-child combo: financier Lane Bess and his son, Cameron. Also flying: Voyager Space chairman and CEO Dylan Taylor and investor Evan Dick.
Blue Origin dedicated Saturday's launch to Glen de Vries, who launched into space with Shatner in October, then died one month later in a plane crash.