by David Bullock
On June 4, Jaison Robinson joined five other spaceflight participants on the fifth crewed suborbital spaceflight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard. The Stanford University graduate is the founder of JJM Investments, a commercial real estate company, and co-founded Dream Variations Ventures (DVV) with his wife, Jamie. DVV invests in technology and sports start-ups. He’s an avid scuba diver and skydiver, has broken the sound barrier in a Mig-29 fighter jet, spent a week hiking in Antarctica, and climbed to the tallest waterfall in the world in Venezuela. He was a finalist on Survivor: Samoa in 2009.
Jaison talked with David Bullock about his New Shepard flight to space.
Q: From the start of the mission to the end of the mission, please describe how it felt step by step. In other words, what does it feel like to go to space?
I think I would say first that the Blue Origin team is really fantastic. They do a great job of training you and they do a great job of providing any type of support you might feel you need. We have three days of training. One of media. And Kevin, our crew member seven was an ex-Navy experimental jet pilot. And he just gives you great confidence in the safety of the rocket and in the safety procedures that you’re learning in case there was any sort of emergency. You are fitted for your flight suit, day one. Day two is more like coursework, learning how the crew panel works and learning all the emergency procedures and learning the difference between seats one and six, and the rest, because there are certain extra responsibilities for crew members in one and six.
And then day two is a number of simulations. So they have a crew capsule that is an exact replica of the crew capsule that we rode. And it simulates the sights and sounds of an actual mission. And you go in through a bunch of scenarios in terms of ingress and egress on the capsule in terms of the capsule under different circumstances. And then on the day of the flight, you get up early in the morning and your guest and family arrive and then you go out to the launch site. You go over safety procedures one more time and then board the rocket and wait for the countdown.
I should really give more details on the flight.
It was a really smooth ride. A very, very smooth ride. I think that’s what I was surprised by. I think when you watch the old videos of rocket launches, it seems quite a bit more violent and quite a bit more volatile on your way to space. The New Shepard was good. It felt for most of the ride like you were taking an airliner from San Francisco to Tokyo or something like that.
Certainly the g-forces were more significant. You really didn’t feel the g-forces until you were 150,000-200,000 feet off the ground. And of course you’re going Mach-3 on the way up and Mach-3.5 on the way down. I think we hit 3.5 g’s on the way up and 5.5 g’s on the way down. I have also broken the sound barrier on a MiG-23 fighter jet. We did 6 g’s on maneuvers, touched the stratosphere, that sort of thing. The reason why you wear a g-suit is because of the way you’re seated in the plane. So, the g-forces are going straight down through your head, cause you’re sitting up right. So the blood is draining from your head down to your feet and that’s when the g-forces get dangerous and you can pass out. But the way [Blue Origin] arranged their seat, the g-forces are going through your chest. So it significantly minimizes the physical effect on your body and your physical experience with the g-forces. It felt a lot smoother and a lot easier in that rocket than it did in the fighter jet.
You’re in the rocket. You’re passing 150,000 feet, 200,000 feet. The booster is detached. You do feel the booster detached, but that’s not a huge boom. And then all of a sudden it’s just black. And I think I was shocked by the transition. Of course everything happened really fast. The objective reality of it might be different from my subjective interpretation. But it went from daylight and seeing the desert to just darkness, when you got into that upper atmosphere about to enter space. Then when you get to space, you go over the Karman line, the light goes off for the safety harness and then when you look out the window, it is the darkest black, the blackest black that I’ve ever seen. That kind of hue, like when you’re watching videos and you see that highlight around the Earth, you look down on that with the darkest black you can see on the other side, you get an amazing moment and then you realize you really did it. You’re really there. You’re in space.
I’ve done some Zero-G flights and that sort of thing too, so the zero gravity was interesting and was fun, but it is really looking out the window and realizing you’re in space and how high you are. Of course, we follow Alan Shepherd’s path. That’s why the rocket is called the New Shepard. He was the first American in space and I can’t imagine what it was like for him as the first American. The second person to get off the planet and to realize exactly where he is.
By the way, we had a great crew as well. No one panicked. There was no extra energy in it. It was very lite and super professional. And I think the professional aspect is what I appreciated the most about our crew and about Blue Origin. Yeah, you’re having a good time and you’re out of your harness and you’re acutely aware you have other responsibilities. And when that light comes back on and you hear the warning buzzer that it’s time to get back in your seat, you need to do that. ‘Cause 5.5 g’s Mach-3.5 down not in the seat and not harnessed is not going to be good.
It goes by really, really fast. You feel like you have more time and you just don’t. Before I knew it the light was back on and everybody did their job and turned and was back in their seat appropriately. I took one last look out the window… And just… I think I got overwhelmed after we’ve landed and I realized what just happened and what I saw. But in the moment you are just in awe. For me it wasn’t just the physical awe of space. It was also kind of the intellectual, curiosity, imagination kind of awe, where you’re thinking about what we are, that you are, that the planet is, that the galaxy is. I think for a moment you realize exactly how large everything is. It’s not academic anymore. It’s not something you’ve seen on television, or read in books or studied in school. It’s real.
So you’re in your seat. CAPCOM—I don’t think they have the capability of seeing what’s in the capsule in real time, so they depend on crew members one and six to tell them that everyone is in their seat. So we report back that everyone is in their seat and it is quite a ride. And now you’re hurtling down towards the planet. I think we did Mach-3.5 on the way down. We did 5 g’s. And everything goes from dark to light again. And I just had this sense of… I don’t know… I don’t know how to describe the feeling I had as I went down. Maybe that it was too fast. I wanted more. I can’t believe that it was basically over. I definitely think I need to do it a second time and I would shoot to go in Low Earth Orbit whenever the New Glenn is ready. Because, you just need the time to process it a bit. I don’t think I would get up out of my seat the second time. Just stare out the window and understand where you are and what’s happening.
You’re coming down and you’re feeling g-forces. And they’re lighten up because there are parachutes [deployed.] There are smaller ‘chutes before the larger parachutes. They are slowing your decent. Everything is deployed appropriately. That’s when you get a really good sense that it’s over. The ground is coming at you. The landing was softer than I thought it would be considering how fast you have traveled. But everything was flawless. Everything went as planned. No issues. No complications. We got out of the seat. We all cheered. And then exiting the capsule and seeing your plus one there is also emotional.
At least for me this has been a lifelong dream. I have been fighting to get to that moment for a really long time. I didn’t have the engineering degree or the PhD or the military background to have NASA select me. But I just hoped and prayed that one day someone would do the work so there would be private space travel and that I would be able to avail myself of it. Thanks to Blue Origin and their founder I was able to have the experience of a lifetime. I just can’t explain the feeling of accomplishment and the feeling of astonishment. Even the bonding between the people. Most of the people I didn’t know for more than three days at Blue Origin. And I really felt I left with a family. I felt like I went in there with just names of people and left with real bonds.
I think of the Overview Effect when I think of the general sense in how we should deal with each other in real life. I don’t think I had any greater feeling in that Overview Effect type of way. I think I have already believed that. But it did change the way I looked at the people I cared about. It did change how I looked at my career and what I want to do with my life. And I just think that what many people had said before that if more people could go to space we might be in a different place with a different type of society. It really is a life changing thing.
Q: What do you want for people to know about your ride with Blue Origin most?
I think there is just an objective pragmatic side of me. I would want people to know that this is more important than just some rich people who want to have an adventure. I truly believe that the future is space. The future is humanity out among the stars. And not in this fatalistic we’re destroying the planet and we need to find someplace else to live kind of way. I just think that is the way we are as people. We are explorers. We are adventurers. We are wanderers. And I think the technology that is being created for the purpose of these flights is going to serve people here on Earth in ways we can’t even understand yet. I think NASA publishes a book every year of technologies that have been adapted or expired from their program into regular life here. But I think the private investment will be accelerated.
I think it is very, very important that we support these projects. And I think it’s very, very important that we support them in a way that gives everybody access to it. [On New Shepard] I think Michael Strahan was the first African-American space tourist. I think I’m the second. I could be wrong about that. I could be further down the list. Someone sent me a list on Wikipedia and I saw I was on the same list as Mae Jamison, the NASA astronaut. I think I had a moment there too, where I was kind of astonished at how it happened.
My parents took my sister and I… My sister is a MD PhD infectious disease researcher at Stanford and they took us to see Mae Jamison when we were kids and I think that moment of meeting her is something that motivated me to achieve more with my life than what I thought was possible and I think my sister feels the same way. So to be on that list with her is truly amazing. But I think there need to be more of us involved in these endeavors.
So, what do I want people to know? I want people to know that this is really important on a more practical level. And that I think we need to do something to get more African-American men and women involved. And that for me this was a moment for my soul and that I feel different about my life and the world having done it. It made me appreciate the things that I have not be as concerned about the things that I don’t and I really came back thinking I was a different person.
Q: How do you see your future and your future with the space sector?
The space answer is probably the easier answer. I want more. I definitely want to do a suborbital flight again, preferably soon. I want to go further. I want that Low Earth Orbit experience. I am hopeful that maybe I’ll be able to do that. I would love to find a way to work in this space, but I’ve never in my life felt as though I had less to contribute as standing there with the Blue Origin engineering team and everyone else associated with that company. They are just such extraordinary minds and such extraordinary talents. That’s probably not going to be my path. But I am hopeful that I can stay engaged and find a way to contribute in the future.
As far as me, myself… my wife and I… It’s been a long two years, two and a half years, as it has been for everyone else, since this pandemic started. We got married literally days before the first case here in the United States. We had our first child in 2020. He’s our pandemic baby. The quarantines and the isolations and we’ve moved across country a few times. I think I am ready to breathe for a lot of reasons, but I think this space trip where I want to be a better husband and a better father. And not just generally a good husband and a good father, I want to be there for my friends and I want to be there for my family. I am more focused on that than on progress in my career now. So where do I see myself? I see myself at soccer games and more involved with the community and living my life in that sort of way.
I think the most emotional part of that entire experience was going toward the landed booster and they drive the astronaut crew out there along with their guests. And I was standing out there by the booster and my wife puts my son down and he just runs towards me. And I have the chance to pick him up and give him a kiss and I just thought, “Son, I can’t believe I did this. I can’t believe I got here and I really hope you have bigger dreams than I do. And I really hope you have the strength to make them to come true. And I hope that I am the sort of father that can help him in all ways, not just material, but emotional with the support that he needs to help him climb those mountains.” That’s about how my future goes.
Thank you very much to Blue Origin, their team and their founder. They really made my dream come true. Great job! Their motto is “Step by step, ferociously” millions of people working in space and living in space. So anything I could do to make that happen, I would gladly do. So thank you to Blue Origin.
Q: Tell me a little about the photograph you sent, with you and the American flag, to Parabolic Arc.
So we were able to take a certain number of items up to space with us. One of the items that I took was an American flag. I took some other things that were personal to me. Some notes from my son and my wife. That’s sort of thing.
I believe in this country. My dad was born in 1943 Mississippi and my mother in 1946 Georgia. They used education to climb the economic ladder and were able to build a life for their children in which they were able to get not only a quality education but to have opportunities to succeed in ways they never could have because of the way that society was structured back then. So that flag to me, is a representation of how much I love this country and how much I believe in this country and not just how much I want, but how much I am ready to participate to keep it strong and move it forward in the right direction.