Actor William Shatner soared aboard a Blue Origin rocket ship on a suborbital trip and landed in the Texas desert on Wednesday to become, at age 90, the oldest person ever in space — an experience he called profound — as US billionaire businessman Jeff Bezos’s company carried out its second tourist flight.
Shatner was one of four passengers to journey for roughly 10 minutes to the edge of space aboard the white, fully autonomous, 18.3m New Shepard spacecraft, which took off from Blue Origin’s launch site about 32km outside the rural west Texas town of Van Horn.
The crew capsule returned to the Texas desert under parachutes, raising a cloud of dust. Shatner emerged gingerly from the capsule in the desert silence, appearing reflective as the others celebrated by cheering and popping champagne bottles. Bezos was on hand and embraced Shatner.
“What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine,” Shatner told Bezos as the two chatted for several minutes. “I am so filled with emotion about what just happened.”
Shatner also remarked on the beauty of the blue colour of Earth from space.
The four astronauts experienced about three to four minutes of weightlessness and travelled above the internationally recognised boundary of space known as the Karman line, 100km above Earth.
Bezos in tow
The four astronauts, all wearing blue flight suits with the company’s name in white letters on one sleeve, climbed into the crew capsule atop the spacecraft before the launch and strapped in after ascending a set of stairs accompanied by Bezos. Each rang a bell before entering the capsule, with Bezos then closing the hatch. Before that, they rode a vehicle with Bezos at the wheel to the launchpad.
Winds were light and skies were clear for the launch, which was conducted after two delays totalling roughly 45 minutes.
Joining Shatner — who embodied the promise of space travel in the classic 1960s TV series Star Trek and seven subsequent films — in the all-civilian crew were former Nasa engineer Chris Boshuizen, clinical research entrepreneur Glen de Vries and Blue Origin vice president and engineer Audrey Powers.
It marked the second space tourism flight for Blue Origin, Bezos’s company founded two decades ago.
The flight represents another important day for the nascent space tourism industry that, according to UBS, could reach an annual value of US$3-billion in a decade. The flight, previously scheduled for Tuesday, was pushed back a day for wind-related reasons.
Blue Origin had a successful debut space tourism flight on 20 July, with Bezos and three others aboard, flying to the edge of space and back on a trip lasting 10 minutes and 10 seconds. On that flight, pioneering female aviator Wally Funk at age 82 became the oldest person to reach space. The previous record was set in 1998 when pioneering astronaut John Glenn returned to space as a 77-year-old US senator.
Bezos, the Amazon.com founder and current executive chairman, formed Blue Origin two decades ago.
Shatner, who turned 90 in March, has been acting since the 1950s and remains busy with entertainment projects and fan conventions. He is best known for starring as Captain James T Kirk of the starship Enterprise on Star Trek and seven subsequent films.
Shatner’s participation in the flight has helped generate publicity for Blue Origin as it competes against two billionaire-backed rivals
As an actor, Shatner was synonymous with space voyages. During the opening credits of each episode of the series, he called space “the final frontier” and promised “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”.
“Beam me up,” Shatner’s character would tell the Enterprise’s chief engineer Scotty, played by James Doohan, in a memorable catchphrase when he needed to be transported to the starship.
Shatner’s participation in the flight has helped generate publicity for Blue Origin as it competes against two billionaire-backed rivals — Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holdings — to attract customers willing to pay large sums to experience spaceflight.
Branson inaugurated his space tourism service on 11 July, riding along on a suborbital flight with six others aboard his company’s VSS Unity rocket plane. SpaceX, which has launched numerous astronauts and cargo payloads to the International Space Station for Nasa, debuted its space tourism business by flying the first all-civilian crew to reach Earth’s orbit in a three-day mission ending on 18 September.
The US Federal Aviation Administration two weeks ago said it will review safety concerns raised by former and current Blue Origin employees who have accused the company of prioritising speed and cost savings over quality control and adequate staffing. — Reported by Mike Blake, with additional reporting by Peter Szekely and Eric M Johnson, (c) 2021 Reuters