Blue Origin sends William Shatner to the final frontier


William Shatner floats out of its seat after arriving in space on Blue Origin’s crew capsule. Credit: Blue Origin

William Shatner, the 90-year-old veteran of countless imaginary space voyages playing Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, blasted off for real Wednesday, becoming the oldest person to reach the final frontier in a PR bonanza for Jeff Bezos and his rocket company Blue Origin.

Over the course of 10 minutes and 17 seconds, Shatner and three crewmates took off atop a hydrogen-fueled rocket, climbed to edge of space 65.8 miles up and enjoyed three to four minutes of weightlessness, along with spectacular views of Earth, before plunging back to a gentle parachute-assisted touchdown.

Within minutes, Bezos and Blue Origin recovery crews were on the scene to open the spacecraft’s hatch and welcome Shatner, Australian entrepreneur Chris Boshuizen, microbiologist Glen de Vries and Blue Origin executive Audrey Powers back to Earth.

Shatner cautiously made his way down a few short steps to the ground and was warmly embraced by Bezos. The actor grew emotional and was occasionally at a loss for words describing the flight to the man who made it possible.

“Everybody in the world needs to do this,” Shatner said. “It was unbelievable, unbelievable. … To see the blue air cover go whip by and you’re staring into blackness, that’s the thing. The covering of blue, this sheet, this blanket, this comforter of blue that we have around us, we think oh, that’s blue sky and then suddenly you shoot through it all as though you whip off a sheet when you’re asleep, and you’re looking into blackness.”

He was struck by the stark “ugliness” of that blackness compared to the blue-and-white of planet Earth.

“What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine,” he told Bezos, on the verge of tears. “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 the me and life. It hasn’t got anything to do with a little green planet, a blue orb, it has to do with the enormity and the quickness and the suddenness of life and death. Oh my God.”

Video released after the flight showed Shatner and his crewmates floating about the cabin as the spacecraft reached space, all of them focused on the view outside as they unstrapped and moved about without worrying about up and down. Shatner appeared mesmerized, quietly gazing out at the black of space and the brilliant planet 65 miles below.

“Holy cow,” Powers marveled.

Speaking with reporters at the base of their booster after the flight, de Vries said flying with Captain Kirk was “the ultimate manifestation of science fiction becoming science. But we went to space with our friend Bill.”

“Scared little Billy, frightened Bill” Shatner joked. “I’m so glad you said that. Captain Kirk is a fictional figure. I’m flesh and blood.”

Said Boshuizen: “I can’t think of a better ambassador for the future of humanity than his character James T. Kirk on Star Trek and that amazing future. So to fly with a true ambassador for what we can become on this planet, I think it’s fantastic.”

The flight marked only the second crewed launch of a New Shepard capsule since Bezos, his brother Mark, 82-year-old aviation pioneer Wally Funk and Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen took off July 20 on the company’s first such flight.

Daemen, then 18, holds the record for youngest person to fly in space, but Shatner eclipsed Funk’s record by eight years and John Glenn’s mark before that by 13.

“I want to see space, I want to see the Earth, I want to see what we need to do to save Earth,” Shatner told CBS Mornings’ Gayle King before launch. “I want to have a perspective that hasn’t been shown to me before. That’s what I’m interested in seeing.”

He got his wish.

Boshuizen and de Vries paid undisclosed sums for their seats aboard the New Shepard, but Shatner was an invited guest of Blue Origin. Powers, a former NASA flight controller now Blue Origin vice president of flight operations, flew as a company representative.

While the New Shepard rocket and capsule are only capable of up-and-down sub-orbital flights, Shatner and his crewmates endured the same liftoff accelerations space shuttle astronauts once felt — about three times the normal force of gravity — and even higher “G loads” during descent back into the lower atmosphere.

Even so, Shatner and his crewmates were considered passengers, not astronauts, aboard the automated New Shepard. But professional astronauts nonetheless welcomed them to the brotherhood of space travelers.

Especially Shatner.

“I’m impressed. I mean, he’s 90 years old and showing that somebody at his age can actually fly to space,” Matthias Maurer, a European Space Agency astronaut launching to the International Space Station at the end of the month, told CBS News.

“Even if it’s, let’s say, just a suborbital flight, I’m highly impressed, and I wish him all the best. Hopefully it will be the experience of a lifetime. And yeah, I hope many more people will follow his steps and also experience space.”

Added Kayla Barron, a Navy submariner who’s flying to the station with Maurer and two others aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule: “It’s really awesome! Like who wouldn’t want to see William Shatner fly in space? Like, I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t.”

“For us watching these new companies with different missions, different equipment, different architectures for how they think about bringing more human beings into human spaceflight is just a win for all of us,” she said. “So we’re really excited to watch that flight, for sure.”

Blue Origin’s 18th New Shepard flight began a few minutes behind schedule, at 10:49 a.m. EDT, when the BE-3 engine powering the company’s 53-foot-tall booster ignited with a roar, throttled up to 110,000 pounds of thrust and lifted off from Launch Site One at the company’s West Texas launch site near Van Horn.

Climbing straight up, the booster quickly accelerated as it consumed propellant and lost weight, reaching a velocity of about 2,200 mph and an altitude of some 170,000 feet before engine shutdown.

The New Shepard capsule then separated from the booster at an altitude of about 45 miles and both continued climbing upward on ballistic trajectories, rapidly slowing.

The onset of weightlessness began moments after separation. All four passengers were free to unstrap and float about as the capsule reached the top of its trajectory and arced over for the long fall back to Earth.

The New Shepard capsule is equipped with some of the largest windows in a currently flying spacecraft, giving Shatner, de Vries, Boshuizen and Powers hemispheric views of Earth far below.

“This experience is something unbelievable,” Shatner told Bezos. “Yeah, you know, weightless, my stomach went up, ah, this is so weird, but not as weird as the covering of blue. This is what I never expected.

“It’s one thing to say, oh, the sky, and (it’s) fragile, it’s all true. But what … is unknown until you do it, is there’s this pure, soft blue. Look at the beauty of that color! And it’s so thin, and you’re through it in an instant.”

Plunging back into the dense lower atmosphere, the passengers, back in their padded, reclining seats, were briefly subjected to more than five times the normal force of gravity before three large red-and-white parachutes deployed and inflated, slowing the craft to about 15 mph.

An instant before touchdown, compressed-air thrusters were programmed to fire, slowing the ship to just 2 mph or so for landing.

A few minutes earlier, the New Shepard booster flew itself back to a pinpoint landing a few miles away, reigniting its BE-3 engine, deploying four landing legs and settling to a concrete landing pad. Assuming no problems are found, the rocket will be refurbished and prepared for another flight.

The mission marked the sixth piloted commercial, non-government sub-orbital spaceflight in a high-stakes competition between Bezos’ Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, owned by British billionaire Richard Branson.

Virgin has launched four piloted flights of its winged spaceplane VSS Unity, most recently sending up Branson, two pilots and three company crewmates on July 11. At least one more flight is planned this year, with three researchers on board representing the Italian air force, before commercial passenger flights begin next year.

Blue Origin followed up the Bezos flight by launching a suite of NASA experiments on an unpiloted mission Aug. 26. The flight Wednesday was the company’s 18th overall and the second with passengers aboard.

“I think it’s pretty amazing that 2021 is the year that really the human race is finally starting to go to space at scale,” Boshuizen told CBS Mornings before launch.

“I think we’ll look back at this date 50 years from now and go, wow, this really was a special time in history, just like the Wright brothers, when people started flying passenger planes. It’s really exciting to be part of history.”