In a Blue Origin Rocket, William Shatner Finally Goes to Space

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 on Wednesday.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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.


William Shatner Is Brought to Tears Describing His Trip to Space

The actor who played Captain Kirk in “Star Trek” told Jeff Bezos his visit to the edge of space in the Blue Origin rocket was the most profound experience he could imagine.

Just unbelievable, unbelievable. I mean, you know, the little things — but to see the blue color whip by, and now you’re staring into blackness, that’s the thing. The covering of blue is — this sheet, this blanket, this comforter, this comforter of blue that we have around, we think, “Oh, it’s blue sky. And then suddenly, you shoot through it all of the sudden as though you’re whipping a sheet off you when you’re asleep. And you’re looking into blackness, into black ugliness and you look down, there’s the blue down there and the black up there. And it’s just — there is Mother Earth, comfort. And there is — is there, death? I don’t know — was that death, is that the way death is? Whoop, and it’s gone. Jesus. It was so moving to me. What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine. I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. I just — it’s extraordinary, extraordinary. I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it. It’s so — so much larger than me and life. And this is now the commercial, everybody — it would be so important for everybody to have that experience.

The actor who played Captain Kirk in “Star Trek” told Jeff Bezos his visit to the edge of space in the Blue Origin rocket was the most profound experience he could imagine.CreditCredit…Blue Origin, via EPA, via Shutterstock

Those concerns were absent on Wednesday as an effusive Mr. Shatner bent Mr. 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,” Mr. Shatner told Mr. 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.”

The Origin New Shepard rocket rising from the launch site on Wednesday.Credit…LM Otero/Associated Press

Spectators watched the New Shepard rocket carrying Mr. Shatner to the edge of space.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

Mr. Bezos, who has said he was inspired by “Star Trek” as a boy, listened, still as a statue. He may have been giving Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. Shatner shared the capsule on 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 Mr. Bezos and company employees.

For a moment, it appeared Mr. 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 miles per hour 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Shatner emerged from the New Shepard capsule after a safe landing near Van Horn, Texas, on Wednesday.Credit… Blue Origin, via EPA, via Shutterstock
In the “Star Trek” episode, “A Piece of the Action,” William Shatner as Captain Kirk appears with DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard McCoy, center, and Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, right, in 1968.Credit…CBS via Getty Images

Mr. 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,” Mr. de Vries said.

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

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

Mr. 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 60s because of her sex.

Like Blue Origin’s July trip, in which Mr. Bezos launched to space with Ms. 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 Mr. Branson and three company employees to the edge of space in July aboard SpaceShipTwo, nine days before Mr. 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, Mr. 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 yearslong 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.

An illustration of the proposed SpaceX Starship human lander on the moon.Credit…SpaceX
Virgin Galactic’s passenger rocket plane VSS Unity, carrying Richard Branson and crew, beginning its ascent to the edge of space above New Mexico in July.Credit…Virgin Galactic, via Reuters

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 the 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.

Mr. 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,” Ms. 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 one.”

On Wednesday after the flight, Mr. 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.”

Floating back to the west Texas desert after a successful mission.Credit…LM Otero/Associated Press

David Streitfeld and Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.

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