William Shatner, 90, becomes oldest man to fly in space, and marks a major benchmark in the history of science fiction

Shatner pic   NS18P X

With this morning’s successful launch and return of 90-year-old William Shatner into outer space aboard the Blue Origin New Shepard spacecraft, Shatner gave his fans worldwide perhaps the greatest single moment in the annals of science fiction.  Melding the best of fantasy and reality, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ New Shepard NS-18 mission took the most famous fictional character, Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk, and made him an actual space traveler, 60 years since the first manned spaceflight, 52 years since the first Moonshot, and 55 years since Shatner first stepped onto the bridge of the Enterprise set.  It’s something no fan of Shatner or Star Trek ever could have dreamed of, a landmark, one-of-a-kind, impossible opportunity that is a giant leap for any writer, actor, or other creator of the ideas behind science fiction, back to all those past dreams of space travel, from the science fiction of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, and George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, to crewmembers of the fictional starship Enterprise invited by NASA to the ribbon-cutting for the first space shuttle named for the Enterprise, to actual astronaut Mae Jemison flying aboard the space shuttle Endeavor and returning to be a guest star on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Does anyone not want Star Trek to be “real”?

Only William Shatner could have done something like this.  If you’ve met the man in person, you know he has unbounded energy like probably nobody else, certainly no one at the age of 90, showing no signs of slowing down, as evidenced again today.  The approximately 10-minute flight took the actor and crewmates above the 62-mile (100 kilometers) Kármán line at 9:53 a.m., which is the most commonly recognized boundary of the edge of space.

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Jeff Bezos’ spaceflight company Blue Origin postponed the flight to today due to forecasted high winds at its launch site (Bezos, a fan of Star Trek, had a cameo as an alien in the movie Star Trek Beyond).  The flight had liftoff at Blue Origin’s Launch Site One near Van Horn, Texas, at 9:49 a.m. (Central Time), returning at 10 a.m. sharp.

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Blue Origin officially announced only last week that Shatner would join the crew of New Shepard for its second crewed flight.  New Shepard’s first crewed flight in July included Bezos, his brother Mark, aviator Wally Funk, and teenager Oliver Daeman to space.  Today Shatner was joined by crewmembers Chris Boshuizen (pronounced boss-howzen), a former NASA engineer and co-founder of satellite company Planet Labs, Glen de Vries, co-founder of software company Medidata and vice chair of life sciences at a French software company, and Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s vice president of mission and flight operations, all shown above in their crew photo.

It was Ronald Reagan who first seriously suggested the idea of putting citizens in space, and the first intended “ordinary person” to fly in space (after a few senators jumped the gun) was teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died en route–16 miles from reaching space–in 1986 aboard the space shuttle Challenger.  Shatner’s age record surpasses Wally Funk, who at 82 flew in Blue Origin’s first manned flight this past July.  The age record harkens back to Mercury space pioneer John Glenn returning to space for a final voyage at age 77 (making his own space age record aboard Space Shuttle Discovery), and for some Trek fans, the launching of Star Trek’s Commander Montgomery “Scotty” Scott actor James Doohan’s ashes into outer space via the International Space Station following his death in 2005.

The mission was launched at 9:49 a.m. Central Time (after first a 47-minute delay at T minus 45:01 minutes and a second delay at 15:00 minutes to launch for 18 minutes), arriving back to Earth, in the West Texas desert, on schedule 11 minutes later at 10:00 a.m. Central Time.  Blue Origin began televising the event this morning at 7:30 a.m. Central via its YouTube channel (first viewed by 14,844 people, expanding to more than 237,000 during the flight) and Space.com.  As cool as Shatner is, he admitted in advance of the flight he felt “terrified.”  Who wouldn’t?  Shatner was offered the trip as a guest, and the two paying astronauts were referred to as customers.  The paid seats in the new era of private space travel so far have only available to the wealthy elite or part of gift or donation/lottery/auction opportunities, with a seat selling for as much as $28 million.  The crew represents the 594-597th people in space since space travel began with Russian Yuri Gagarin in 1961, 60 years ago.  This was the 18th Blue Origin flight, and the second of their manned flights.  The pre-flight included a ceremony where the crewmembers were issued challenge coins.  Shatner responded, “heads we go, tails we don’t?”  The ultimately 2.5 hour event was heavily marketed with lots of sales pitches for future seats by Blue Origin’s two announcers, interspersed with several Blue Origin promotional features.  The command center was all fully masked because of the ongoing pandemic.

Fans can acquire the mission patch for the historic flight from Blue Origin at its website here.  Estes has just partnered with Blue Origin to sell the New Shepard flying model rocket.  Check it out at the Estes website here.

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“Yes, it’s true; I’m going to be a ‘rocket man!'” Shatner tweeted last week, adding, “It’s never too late to experience new things.”  “That was unlike anything they described,” Shatner said as he laughed upon landing.  Getting choked up after stepping out of the capsule speaking with Jeff Bezos, he said, “Everybody in the world needs to do this… It was so moving.  This experience was so unbelievable… It was the most profound experience I can imagine… it’s extraordinary….  I hope I can maintain what I feel now.  I don’t want to lose it….  I hope I never recover from this.”  In his long chat with Bezos afterward, Shatner basically gave Bezos a directive to make this opportunity available to everyone, continuing to marvel aloud about his journey for several minutes.  Is there anything cooler than flying in space with Captain Kirk?  The answer to that is probably actually being William Shatner.

C.J. Bunce / Editor / borg

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