The opening monologue of the original Star Trek television series ended with the words, “…to boldly go where no man has gone before.” When he read those words in the 1960s, William Shatner probably thought very little of them other than how aspirational they were for a science fiction show of that era.
Now, more than fifty years later, the veteran actor finds himself preparing to head where very few men have gone before him. At the ripe old age of ninety, Shatner is heading into space thanks to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
News of the Captain Kirk actor’s impending voyage took the celebrity world by surprise, but the surprise only grew bigger from there. Usually, when someone’s announced as “heading into space,” the announcement concerns a journey that will happen for several months – perhaps even a year or more – in the future. That isn’t the case for William Shatner. He’s strapping himself into Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and leaving the Earth’s atmosphere from a launch site in Texas this month. Probably, he would have gone by the time you read this.
Assuming the launch goes as planned, Shatner will become the oldest person ever to venture into space, breaking a record set by the previous Blue Origin space mission in July this year. On that occasion, Bezos himself went into space accompanied by his brother, an eighteen-year-old student, and 82-year-old NASA space program veteran Wally Funk. She trained to be an Apollo astronaut during the 1960s, but ultimately no women were selected for any of the Moon missions. That great historical wrong was at least partially corrected by Funk’s brief visit to the stars.
At a brief press event to promote the launch, Shatner joked that he’d “heard about space” for most of his life, so he’s finally going to go and see it for himself. He described the opportunity as “a miracle.” According to some reports, though, he could have made the trip already had he wanted to. The BBC says that Sir Richard Branson offered Shatner to go into space with Virgin Galactic in 2011. At the time, Branson said Shatner turned him down because he was afraid of flying. Two years later, Shatner said the “fear of flying” line wasn’t true. Instead, he says Branson wanted him to pay for the trip, to which Shatner responded that he’d be willing to do it if Branson paid him a large sum of money to “risk his life.” The fact that Shatner has now agreed to climb into a rocket implies that Bezos might be paying him a handsome sum for the publicity stunt. Considering the relationship between the two billionaires and their space companies, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Bezos will enjoy succeeding where Branson failed by luring Shatner aboard.
While Shatner’s comment on “risking his life” was a quip, there will obviously be concerns about the safety of a ninety-year-old man – even one as healthy as Shatner appears to be – in space. This is probably the most significant of all the gambles the Star Trek legend has taken in his life. He appears in a range of Star Trek-themed online slots – most notably Star Trek: Red Alert and Star Trek: Trouble with Tribbles – but even they look like less of a gamble than this. In fact, you could probably take the riskiest game at any of the online slots websites those Star Trek slots appear on, and it would still be less of a risk. We can only hope that the people who calculate these risks for Blue Origin are as diligent and careful with the numbers as the mathematicians who calculate probabilities for online slots games. Losing James T. Kirk in space would be a lot more costly than going on a losing streak at a casino!
There is some debate among academics over whether the rocket launches carried out by Bezos and Blue Origin should be counted as putting people “in space.” Each journey takes just ten minutes, and its peak distance from the surface of the Earth is sixty miles. That’s enough to take the occupants beyond the Karman Line and experience zero gravity, but not far enough to escape Earth’s orbit. It would be more accurate to say that the ships become fleetingly brief satellites than to say that they truly venture into space. Still, such splitting of hairs is unlikely to dampen demand for tickets when either Bezos or Branson eventually decide that their companies are ready to welcome their first commercial passengers.
Developing the New Shepard spacecraft has been a twenty-year process for Bezos, who founded Blue Origin in 2000. The craft is capable of vertical takeoff and vertical landing and is made of only two parts; the crew capsule and the booster rocket. Blue Origin missions that involve New Shepard don’t have any ground control facilities or human pilots – the entire journey through the Karman line and back is planned and conducted by the computers aboard the vessel. This spaceship was used in the July launch and will be used again in the October launch, but it probably won’t be the ship that commercial passengers of the future will step aboard. That’s likely to be the New Armstrong vessel, which was first hinted at in 2016 and is currently understood to be undergoing development. The New Glenn is also ready for launch, but that ship will take satellites and machinery into orbit rather than people.
The ultimate goal of Blue Origin is to complete a successful moon landing before the end of the decade. The project is called “Blue Moon,” and its lunar lander was unveiled in 2019. There have been no further updates about the status of Blue Moon since that 2019 unveiling, but that’s par for the course with Blue Origin. They’re likely to give us information only when they have something ready to show us and not before. By sending a science fiction legend into space, they’ve certainly caught the world’s attention. Are they setting the stage for an even bigger announcement off the back of it? We’ll have to wait and see.
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