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In a Blue Origin rocket, William Shatner finally goes to space

Shatner, the actor best known as the heroic Captain James T. Kirk in "Star Trek," and three other passengers returned safely from a brief trip to the edge of space Wednesday

By Joey Roulette
Published: Oct 14, 2021

In a Blue Origin rocket, William Shatner finally goes to spaceAn undated photo provided by Blue Origin shows the crew of NS-18, from left: Audrey Powers, William Shatner, Chris Boshuizen, and Glen de Vries, along with CrewMember 7 Sarah Knights, a trainer, on Oct. 12, 2021. After Blue Origin’s latest launch on Oct. 13, 2021, much of the initial reaction focused more on William Shatner’s introduction to outer space than the particulars of the flight or issues with the company behind it. Image: Blue Origin via The New York Times

NEAR VAN HORN, Texas — William Shatner, the actor best known as the heroic Captain James T. Kirk in “Star Trek,” and three other passengers returned safely from a brief trip to the edge of space Wednesday. Shatner, 90, became the world’s oldest space traveler on the flight, which was the latest excursion over the West Texas desert aboard a rocket built by Blue Origin for space tourists. The private space company is owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and one of the wealthiest men on the planet.

It was the sixth launch carrying private passengers this year, as billionaire-backed companies jockey to normalize launching humans to space. Carrying two paying passengers, the quick jaunt to space also checked off another revenue-generating flight for Blue Origin’s space tourism business, advancing competition with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to attract more wealthy and adventure-seeking customers.

But the successful flight and landing came amid a string of controversies for Bezos’ company, particularly charges from current and former employees that its workplace culture was “rife” with sexism and that it prioritized speed over addressing some employees’ safety concerns. The company has rebutted the criticisms, but has also faced setbacks in other lines of its business.

Those concerns were absent Wednesday as an effusive Shatner bent Bezos’ ear just outside the capsule after it landed, pouring forth words during a video livestream to describe his brief trek into the limits of the planet’s atmosphere. His trip aboard the rocket might have been conceived as a publicity stunt, but brushing the edge of the sky left the actor full of wonder, mixed with unease.

“What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine,” Shatner told Bezos, waxing poetically about the “immeasurably small” line he witnessed between Earth and space, describing it as a fragile, underappreciated boundary between life and death.

"This air which is keeping us alive is thinner than your skin,” he continued, adding “it would be so important for everybody to have that experience, through one means or another.”

Bezos, who has said he was inspired by “Star Trek” as a boy, listened, still as a statue. He may have been giving Shatner some space, but it was a sharp contrast to his appearance after his own brief spaceflight in July, when he was aboard the same spacecraft. Then, Bezos held forth from a stage, rousing condemnation from critics of the vast company he founded as he thanked Amazon’s employees and customers for making it possible for him to finance his private space venture.

Shatner shared the capsule Wednesday with three other passengers: Audrey Powers, a Blue Origin vice president who oversees New Shepard operations, and two paying customers: Chris Boshuizen, a co-founder of the Earth-observation company Planet Labs, and Glen de Vries, a co-founder of a company that builds software for clinical researchers.

The launch Wednesday morning was pushed back by roughly an hour by two pauses to the launch countdown — caused in part by extra checks to the spacecraft and winds near its launchpad. The quartet was driven in electric pickup trucks to Blue Origin’s launchpad, roughly an hour before liftoff, flanked by Bezos and company employees.

For a moment, it appeared Bezos, dressed in a flight suit like the one he wore in July, would join them in flying to space. But he closed the hatch door before leaving the pad, sending the crew on their journey.

The rocket lifted off at 9:49 a.m. Central Time, ascending nearly as fast as a speeding bullet at 2,235 mph and sending the crew some 65.8 miles high. The whole trip lasted 10 minutes, 17 seconds, and gave the four passengers about four minutes of weightlessness.

Boshuizen, talking to reporters after the flight, likened the crew’s entry into space to a stone hitting the surface of a lake. “I was trying to smile but my jaw was pushed back in my head,” he said.

De Vries said the crew “had a moment of camaraderie” when they reached space. “We actually just put our hands together,” he said.

“And then we enjoyed the view as much as we can,” de Vries said.

In video footage released later by Blue Origin, Shatner appeared nearly speechless as the crew floated inside the capsule, legs aloft and small toys wafting around. “This is nuts,” said Powers, gripping the frame of one of the capsule’s windows.

The capsule then descended back to land under a set of three parachutes.

Shatner wasn’t thrilled about his new status as the oldest person to fly into space. “I wish I had broken the world record in the 10-yard dash, but unfortunately it was how old I was,” he said hours after the mission during a news conference on the landing pad. He beat the record recently clinched during Blue Origin’s first crewed flight in July by Wally Funk, an 82-year-old pilot and former candidate for NASA’s astronaut corps who was turned down from joining in the 1960s because of her sex.

Like Blue Origin’s July trip, in which Bezos launched to space with Funk and two other passengers, Wednesday’s flight served as an advertisement of the company’s space tourism business to prospective wealthy customers. It is competing primarily with Virgin Galactic, a rival space company founded by Richard Branson, the British businessman.

Virgin Galactic’s suborbital ship is a space plane that takes off from a runway like a commercial airliner. It tops out at a lower altitude. The company sent Branson and three company employees to the edge of space in July aboard SpaceShipTwo, nine days before Bezos’ flight.

Blue Origin has declined to publicly state a price for a ticket to fly on New Shepard. The company is nearing $100 million in sales so far, Bezos had said in July. But it’s unclear how many ticket holders that includes.

Tickets on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo were hiked to $450,000 in August, from $250,000, when the company reopened ticket sales after a years long hiatus. And flights to orbit — a much higher altitude than Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic’s trips go — are far more expensive. Three passengers going to the International Space Station next year are paying $55 million each for their seats on a SpaceX rocket, bought through the company Axiom Space.

But space tourism is not Blue Origin’s only business, nor its only challenge. Earlier this year, the company lost out to SpaceX, the rival rocket company owned by billionaire Elon Musk, for a lucrative NASA contract to land humans on the moon. The company is currently challenging the award to SpaceX in federal court, and may receive a ruling in November.

Bezos’ company is also attempting to overcome technical hurdles in its effort to finish building its much bigger rocket, New Glenn, as well as that rocket’s engines, which are to be relied on by a competitor, United Launch Alliance, to fly NASA and Pentagon hardware on its rockets.

Its most immediate challenge has concerned accusations that the company’s work culture allowed harassment and sexist behavior. In September, Alexandra Abrams, the former head of employee communications at Blue Origin, published an essay with 20 unnamed current and former employees of the company outlining those charges, as well as accusations that internal safety concerns were often dismissed by management.

“Even if there are absolutely zero issues with all of Blue’s programs, which is absolutely not the case, a toxic culture bursting with schedule pressure and untrustworthy leaders breeds and encourages failures and mistakes each and every day,” Abrams said this week.

Blue Origin disputed the allegations in the essay, saying in a statement that the company has an internal hotline for sexual harassment complaints. And on Wednesday’s livestream of the launch, Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s astronaut sales director, emphasized the company’s safety record, saying “safety has been baked into the design of New Shepard from Day 1.”

On Wednesday after the flight, Shatner also brought up New Shepard’s safety.

“I think, just generally, the press needs to know how safe this was,” he said, adding “the technology is very safe, the approach was safe, the training was safe and everything went according to exactly what they predicted. We even waited for the winds an extra half-hour.”

But asked by reporters if he would launch to space again, he said, “I am so filled with such an emotion, I don’t want to dissipate it by thinking of another journey.”

©2019 New York Times News Service