UH Hilo astronomy alum leads communication with astronauts during Blue Origin’s first human space flight

In addition to her communication duties at the commercial space flight company Blue Origin, Sarah Knights (Bachelor of Science in Astronomy, 2006) also is an astronaut trainer and developed all astronaut training curriculum.

Left, Sarah Knights in Mission Control, and right, the capsule before launch.
At left is UH Hilo alumna Sarah Knights in the Mission Control room minutes before blast off of Blue Origin’s first human space flight on July 20, 2021. At right is the capsule where four astronauts await launch. Screen shot from Blue Origin video of the event.

By Susan Enright

Sarah Knights profile photo in desert.
Sarah Knights

An alumna of the astronomy program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo served as capsule communicator or “capcom” between mission control and the astronauts during Tuesday’s spaceflight by the commercial company Blue Origin. It was the company’s first human flight, with four private citizens onboard the New Shepard.

In addition to her communication duties at Blue Origin, Sarah Knights (Bachelor of Science in Astronomy, 2006) is also an astronaut trainer and guided customers who participated in the flight. She conducted training for every astronaut mission or rehearsal, and conducted launch operations both in the field and in Mission Control. She also defined learning objectives aligned with New Shepard’s Human Flight Certification process and developed all astronaut training curriculum.

Four crew members.
New Shepard crew, from left, Mark Bezos, Jeff Bezos, Oliver Daemen, and seated, Wally Funk. Photo credit Blue Origin.

The flight is the first time a commercial company has launched a privately funded and built spacecraft from a private launch facility with people on board. The crew on the flight was eclectic, each important in their symbolism and meaning to the quickly evolving business of commercial space flight.

Astronauts onboard the July 20 flight were the founder of Blue Origin Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, pioneering female aviator Wally Funk, and Dutch student Oliver Daemen. With the flight, Funk, 82, who began her astronaut training in 1959, became the oldest person to fly in space, and Daemen, 18, became the youngest. This fall Daemen will attend the University of Utrecht to study physics and innovation management.

Welcome aboard

Once the astronauts were safely on the spacecraft, Knights welcomed them aboard (1:10:41 in video below).

“New Shepard this is Mission Control,” she says as the crew settles into their seats. “Good morning astronauts and welcome aboard the RSS First Step. Let’s get things started with the comm check.”

Knights then checks in with each of the four onboard to be sure communication systems are in working order. Her face lights up as each responds, “Copy.”

“Alright astronauts, we are at t-minus 21 minutes and counting. As we proceed, I’ll keep you updated. For now, just sit back and relax.”

Before blast off (1:17:19 in video), Knights read a letter from Jeff and Mark Bezos’s sister, Christina, reminiscing about their childhood days playing out their roles as crew on Star Trek.

Rocket blasting off straight into the air with red glow of fuel trailing behind.
Blast off of Blue Origin’s New Shepard space craft from launch pad in Texas, July 20, 2021. Screenshot from Blue Origin video of the event.

The New Shepard vehicle lifted off from the company’s facilities in Van Horn, Texas, shortly after 8:00 a.m. CT. The blast off went smoothly, the booster separated without a hitch, and about five minutes into the flight, the capsule passed the Kármán Line, an internationally recognized boundary of space about 62 miles above Earth’s surface where the astronauts enjoyed four minutes of weightlessness.

Resembling the feather logo on the side of the booster and capsule, both floated smoothly back down to Earth. The booster rocket touched down in a vertical landing about seven minutes after liftoff. A few minutes later, the capsule containing the crew landed relatively softly, with parachutes and cushioning retrorockets.

“Welcome back to Earth, First Step,” says Knights to the crew (1:52:15 on video). “Congratulations to all of you.” She then does a status check on each astronaut, and all are well and happy, “Unbelievably good,” responds Daemen.

At left, booster safely landed, at right, capsule safely landed, in desert environment.
At left, booster safely landed; at right, capsule safely landed with crew unharmed. Screenshot from Blue Origin video of the event.

The mission, 10 minutes and 10 seconds in duration from blast off to touchdown, was a resounding success with booster, capsule, and crew all kept safe.

According to reports, Blue Origin, based in Kent, WA, expects to fly two more crewed flights this year, with many more crewed flights planned for 2022.

A career in STEM education

Knights joined Blue Origin in 2016 and in addition to her communication duties, also serves as internship program manager. She has taught science, technology, engineering, and math (commonly called STEM) to more than 70,000 people of all ages, including running hundreds of missions at the Museum of Flight Challenger Learning Center, Seattle, WA. She has spent her life interpreting technical subjects and translating them for people in understandable ways. Prior to her career in STEM education, she worked at Gemini Observatory and Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawai‘i Island.

As intern program manager at Blue Origin, Knights mentors interns in real engineering design projects related to the development and construction of human spaceflight systems. The interns work directly with company engineers to contribute to project goals in the fields of mechanical design, fluids, aerodynamics, rocket propulsion, flight controls, electronics, avionics, enterprise software, flight software, composites, chemistry, human safety, and systems engineering. She also assists interns in discovering opportunities in business development and finance.

“Working directly with our team, students gain real-life experience that allows them to apply classroom learning to real aerospace challenges,” she explains on her LinkedIn page.

This work echoes her time at UH Hilo. While an undergraduate, she worked as a research assistant at the Gemini Observatory on Maunakea where she was a summit observational assistant providing live quality control data reduction and weather monitoring for the telescope operators during observations.

She also assisted visiting astronomers with general software training and database navigation, and assisted staff astronomers with data reduction, statistical analysis, and general data analysis for their research projects.

She also worked at the W. M. Keck Observatory as a Michelson Interferometer Intern where she worked on data and assisted with observation and engineering runs.

 

Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.