William Shatner, who as Capt. James T. Kirk on the TV series “Star Trek” flew the USS Enterprise around the galaxy, on Wednesday reached the edge of space on a more modest quest, on a far less capable spacecraft but in a mission that had the distinct advantage of being real.
Shatner and three other passengers lifted off at 10:49 a.m. Eastern time from a launch site in West Texas owned and operated by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space company. The launch was the venture’s second human spaceflight mission, and it came three months after Bezos himself flew to space on his company’s New Shepard rocket.
Lasting just more than 10 minutes, the autonomous vehicle, named for Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space, climbed to a height of about 66 miles, four miles beyond one measurement of what is generally considered the edge of space. Aloft and free-floating above the Earth, the crew took in views of the planet below and the dark skies beyond while they floated in weightlessness for a few minutes.
The capsule then touched down under parachutes in the desert as the company celebrated what appeared to be another successful mission. Shatner, 90, became the oldest person to have visited space.
After the mission, an emotional and philosophical Shatner rhapsodized about the experience to Bezos, who greeted the crew at the landing site and opened the spacecraft’s hatch. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Shatner compared tearing through the blue sky on the rocket to whipping a comfortable blanket off in the morning. “And you’re staring into blackness,” he said. “That’s the thing.”
The line of the atmosphere, “which is keeping us alive, is thinner than your skin,” he said. “It’s a sliver. It’s immeasurably small when you think in terms of the universe.”
The contrast of the bright colorful Earth and the inky vastness above was a metaphor for life and death, he said. “What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine,” he told Bezos. “I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. It’s extraordinary. I hope I never recover from this. I hope I maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it.”
The launch became part of a historic year in which the number of private astronauts who have reached space outnumber those sent to space by NASA, the start of a new dynamic that is beginning to open up space to ordinary people.
Shatner’s flight was the sixth human spaceflight mission this year carrying civilian astronauts who have not received government training. Earlier this year, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic flew its space plane to the edge of space twice – once, in May, with a pair of pilots, and the second time, in July, with Branson himself, three other passengers and two pilots.
Less than two weeks after Branson’s flight, Blue Origin flew Bezos and three others to the edge of space. Last month, Elon Musk’s SpaceX flew the so-called Inspiration4 mission, which carried a crew of four amateur astronauts into orbit, where they stayed for three days inside the Dragon spacecraft.
And earlier this month, Russian actress Yulia Peresild and producer-director Klim Shipenko lifted off on a Russian rocket to shoot scenes for a film while aboard the International Space Station.
If all goes to plan, there could be as many as nine flights this year with amateur astronauts on board. Virgin Galactic has said it’s planning one more, as is Blue Origin, and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and an assistant, who would document the flight, are scheduled to fly on the Russian Soyuz to the space station. (More private astronaut missions are scheduled for next year, and Axiom Space plans to fly a crew of four to the space station on a SpaceX rocket.)
With the completion of Shatner’s flight, 21 private citizens have been to space so far this year. (Virgin Galactic pilot Dave Mackay has been twice.) And more than a dozen other private astronauts could reach space by the end of the year, bringing the total to more than 30, depending on how many fill the seats of future flights and if they go off on schedule.
NASA, by contrast, planned just two human spaceflight missions this year on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. It flew a crew of four in April and has another flight scheduled for Oct. 30 that will also carry a four-member crew to the space station.
“I think, in 50 years, we’ll look back at this year and go, ‘This was the beginning of actually the public’s movement into space and the opening up of the space frontier,’ ” Chris Boshuizen, one of the passengers on Wednesday’s flight, told Fox Business Network this week. “So I think it’s a really exciting time to be doing this with this crew.”
On Blue Origin’s second spaceflight mission, Shatner was joined by Audrey Powers, who oversees the New Shepard program as vice president of mission and flight operations and was a former flight controller at NASA. Also on the flight were two paying customers: Boshuizen, the co-founder of Planet, which deploys Earth observation satellites, and Glen de Vries, the co-founder of Medidata Solutions, which uses technology to help pharmaceutical and biotech companies.
It’s unclear how much they paid. Blue Origin is selling seats on its first flights to people who participated in an auction for a seat on the first flight before beginning regular ticket sales. (Virgin Galactic charges $450,000 for a seat on its suborbital space tourism flights.)
The flight comes as Blue Origin has faced allegations that its culture is toxic and its leadership is out of touch. Some women complained to The Post that they were subjected to condescending remarks that at times verged on harassment.
The company has said it takes all claims of harassment very seriously, investigates them and fires people when appropriate. It also said that the safety of the New Shepard system is rigorously tested and safe.
“Safety has always been our top priority,” Powers told “CBS This Morning” this week.
A former company official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, was very critical of the company’s culture and leadership. But the person agreed that Blue Origin has thoroughly tested the system. “I would fly on it in a heartbeat,” the person said.
Before the flight, Shatner said he was is looking forward to the flight, joking in a video clip posted by Boshuizen on Twitter on Tuesday that “I’m so ready, I’m thinking of jumping out of the capsule at apogee. That’s how ready I am.”
In another clip posted by Blue Origin, Shatner said he couldn’t wait to see Earth from above, “to see this gem, this warm, loving, nourishing planet.”
“I plan to be looking out the window with my nose pressed against the window,” he said. “The only thing I don’t want to see is a little gremlin looking back at me.”