One of Jim Kitchen’s earliest memories is sitting on his mom’s lap and watching the launch of one of the Saturn rockets—which powered the Apollo space program—off the coast of Florida on their black and white TV. It literally shook the Earth, he said. That was the moment it became Kitchen’s lifelong dream to become an astronaut.
Next Wednesday, the UNC professor and serial entrepreneur will finally realize that childhood dream. He is one of the six-person crew that will be onboard Jeff Bezos’ latest Blue Origin spaceship launch.
The other passengers include comedian Pete Davidson as an invited guest, plus four other paying customers: Party America CEO Marty Allen; philanthropist and real estate mogul Marc Hagle and his wife, Sharon Hagle, who is also the founder of the nonprofit SpaceKids Global; and Dr. George Nield, the president of Commercial Space Technologies and a former manager of the Flight Integration Office for NASA’s space shuttle program.
During the trip that begins at 8:30 a.m. from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in Texas—and will be available to stream on Blue Origin’s website—the crew will travel to the edge of space and experience around four minutes of weightlessness.
It is the fourth manned flight and 20th flight overall for the New Shepard program from Blue Origin, allowing space tourism at previously unseen levels.
Kitchen—a Class of ’87 UNC grad who has been a professor at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School for more than a decade—always kept the dream of being an astronaut alive. But reaching space never seemed attainable until now.
While he didn’t disclose the cost of his ticket, he said flying to space has become more accessible than ever. Going to space used to be a $50-$100 million expense, he said, and now a North Carolina educator will be one to experience outer space up close and personal.
“Now this is kind of democratizing this whole industry,” Kitchen said, “and it’s amazing because people like me that have dreamt of going their whole lives, it’s actually becoming attainable.”
The process to become one of Blue Origin’s passengers was surprisingly simple, Kitchen said—he filled out a form on its website. But unsure if his request actually went through, Kitchen said he was persistent, continuing to send emails about the opportunity. Finally, he received a call a few months ago, offering him a space on the shuttle.
In addition to being a serial entrepreneur in the marketing, travel, tech, real estate and investment industries, Kitchen is also a world traveler. He has visited all 193 countries recognized by the U.N. (see the pictures below). So after traveling across the world, the chance to see the Earth from space is mind-boggling, he said.
“I think just being able to see that whole spectacle…The blackness of the universe, especially now with all the stuff that the world is going through, to just look across and see the earth…There’s no borders,” Kitchen said.
The plan is to just sit quietly by the window and marvel at the universe, Kitchen said, but he admits that getting to fly on a space shuttle with Pete Davidson gives him major points with his children and students.
“My plan in space is to sit by the window and take it all in,” Kitchen said. “I don’t know what the other five people are going to do. I got a feeling that Pete Davidson might have his own plan.”
Close to home, Kitchen was a major influence in the creation of Chapel Hill’s Launch Chapel Hill and 1789 incubators to help students scale their business ideas. But his own background was never so narrowly set toward entrepreneurship. He initially attended UNC-Chapel Hill as an undergraduate starting in 1982, majoring in Russian and East European Studies with the hope of joining the CIA.
Then Kitchen stumbled upon an entrepreneurship class, and it changed his life. One of his early endeavors included a group tour business. At first just selling tours to the Bahamas at UNC, the business scaled across the ACC footprint, from one school to 600 in a matter of six years. (Don’t miss the circa 1987 photo below.)
UNC life has come full circle
Today, Kitchen teaches the same class that changed his life all those years ago. That’s only fitting given that he comes from a family of public school teachers. Kitchen said he never could figure out just why teaching was such a calling to his parents until he began teaching at UNC.
“Had I gone to another school, I likely would have ended up on a different path,” Kitchen said. “But it’s perfect for me to be at UNC, and my life would have been radically different had I not gone there.”
Through his own entrepreneurial and travel experiences, Kitchen feels he is able to impart the life lessons he’s acquired to his students. One of the most significant, he says, is the ability to connect deeply with others.
He knows that many think, “What the heck does connecting with people have to do with entrepreneurship?” His response: “But it has everything to do with life. It has everything to do with employees. It has everything to do with customers.”
Leading into next Wednesday, the Blue Origin crew will complete four days of training to simulate the launch. Kitchen said he continues to be amazed that a teacher from North Carolina will be one of the first commercial passengers to reach outer space. He wants to be an inspiration to others that anything is possible.
“I didn’t go through professional astronaut training to complete a mission,” Kitchen said. “I just happened to be fortunate to be chosen to go on this launch, and I’m humbled by it.”