These are the voyages of New Shepard…
This past week, something amazing happened; something that I have complex feelings about, and that I feel obligated to mention here. William Shatner, Star Trek’s “Captain Kirk” himself, at 90 years old, took a suborbital hop roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles) above the Earth and back in an eleven minute flight–a cushier, far more refined version of the brutal space hops taken in the first two flights of Project Mercury back in 1961, with astronauts Alan B. Shepard Jr. and Virgil “Gus” Grissom.
Shatner, along with three other passengers, flew into space in a reusable capsule called “New Shepard” (named after astronaut Alan B), which rode atop a reusable booster rocket–both manufactured by Blue Origins. Blue Origins is the private spaceflight company created by Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos–the beneficiary of some rather generous tax breaks and subsidies (to put it mildly). Bezos also happens to be one of the wealthiest human beings in the history of our species.
Other passengers on this billionaire-funded space hop included Audrey Powers (Blue Origins VP), Chris Boshuizen, a co-founder of Planet Labs (a company that builds CubeSats), and Glen de Vries, CEO and co-founder of Medidata Solutions (a software company).
One of the things that struck me most about Shatner’s brief flight was that he spent most of his time doing what I might do in his place–he simply looked out the window and enjoyed the view, recognizing the opportunity and appreciating the moment as it unfolded in real time.
While his younger crewmates were reveling in the free-fall gymnastics space travelers typically enjoy during spaceflight, Shatner was sitting by the window–soaking it all in. Perhaps this is why the flight reduced him to tears afterward; he was able to fully absorb the enormity of what he’d just done, and the sight of our precious (and fragile) home planet from space.
While the idea of Star Trek’s own Captain Kirk blurring the line between science fiction and science fact is one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments that will go down in spaceflight history, I will admit to having some decidedly mixed feelings about the way he went into space.
The crew of this New Shepard flight were all very, very wealthy. They are also all caucasian–not exactly the diverse crew who populated the bridge of the fictional starship USS Enterprise, but here we are. Astrophysicist (and one of Star Trek’s current science advisers) Dr. Erin Macdonald best summed up my own feelings about William Shatner’s space shot recently via Twitter:
That said, Shatner had some wonderful insights into seeing the fragility of the Earth and its thin blue line of atmosphere from 62 miles up. His words were heartfelt and poignant–reminding me of the quote by Jodie Foster’s “Dr Ellie Arroway” in the 1997 movie “Contact”: “They should’ve sent a poet.” Well, how about a former Shakespearean actor and TV star?
William Shatner has a huge audience, and while he’s famous and wealthy, he isn’t an engineer or a scientist (let alone a starship captain), so his perspective on his spaceflight might be something closer to an average person’s, which is truly of great value.
Hopes for the Future.
Like Dr. Macdonald, my hope is that non-astronaut Shatner’s post-spaceflight comments might inspire some dialogue about the fragility of Earth’s thin, fragile layer of atmosphere, and the need for more people (not just billionaires or famous folk) to have that perspective, either by virtual means or some other technology, as yet unimagined (Star Trek’s holodeck…?).
Maybe Shatner could add his voice and fame to the climatologists are are currently fighting an uphill battle of climate change? Shatner’s voyage into suborbital space might also inspire a new breed of space travelers–hopefully not just those who are rich and famous–just as Shatner and his diverse cast members inspired many future astronauts with “Star Trek,” over 55 years ago. The dream of human spaceflight will reach its apex when it is possible for everyone.
Maybe if more people truly listen to Shatner’s words about the need to protect and take better stewardship of our finite Earth, the message itself might be important enough to justify the somewhat gilded means of getting there.