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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Watch William Shatner fly to space on Blue Origin’s tourist rocket

Early Wednesday morning, famed Star Trek actor William Shatner will boldly go where he’s never been before: actual space. Shatner, best known for playing James T. Kirk, Captain of the USS Enterprise, is set to fly to space and back, along with three fellow passengers, aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket out of West Texas.

Today’s flight marks the second crewed flight for the New Shepard, a reusable passenger rocket developed by Blue Origin to take paying customers to the edge of space to experience a few brief moments of weightlessness. The company’s first crewed flight in July famously included Blue Origin’s founder, former Amazon CEO and currently the second richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos.

The crew going up today is an eclectic one. Flying alongside Shatner are two paying customers: Chris Boshuizen, a former NASA engineer and co-founder of small satellite company Planet Labs, as well as Glen de Vries, co-founder of software company Medidata and vice chair of life sciences at a French software company called Dassault Systèmes. Audrey Powers, vice president of mission and flight operations at Blue Origin, was announced as the final passenger along with Shatner last week.

The foursome’s flight will last just about 11 minutes total. New Shepard is a suborbital rocket, meaning it cannot achieve the ludicrous speed needed to lap the Earth indefinitely. Instead, the rocket will launch upright from Blue Origin’s launch site in Van Horn, Texas. In just a few minutes, the rocket will climb to an altitude above 62 miles (100 kilometers) high, crossing the boundary into space. While high above the Earth, the capsule separates from the rocket, and the passengers inside have a few minutes to float around and look out the tall windows at the Earth below.

Shatner’s flight comes just a few weeks after the release of his new spoken word album, Bill, which includes a song with Brad Paisley called “So Far From The Moon,” which revolves around Shatner’s experience on the night of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969. At 90 years old, Shatner will become the oldest person to have gone to space. He’ll beat out legendary aviator Wally Funk, who flew on the first crewed flight of New Shepard with Bezos. Funk, who is 82 years old, was part of a group of 13 women in the 1960s who underwent the same testing that NASA used to pick its first astronauts but was ultimately denied the option to train for space.

Shatner will be the second actor in just the last two weeks to fly to space. Russian actress Yulia Peresild also just launched to the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz rocket in order to shoot scenes in space for an upcoming movie called “The Challenge.”

Last week, Shatner gave a light-hearted interview to CNN’s Anderson Cooper about his upcoming ride. “I want to press my nose up against the glass window,” Shatner said. “What I don’t want to see is somebody else out there, looking back at me. No, no, we don’t want that.”

The conversation ultimately devolved into giggles, with the two making some inappropriate jokes regarding the shape of the New Shepard rocket. “Some people made fun of the way the rocket looks, but I think it’s cool,” Cooper said. “I like it. I think that the weightless thing I think would be fun.”

“Well, no, there’s nothing to be… nothing to be made fun of,” said Shatner in response. “We’re inseminating the space program.”

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, carrying Jeff Bezos to space
Image: Blue Origin

The New Shepard flight, called NS-18, also comes less than two weeks after 21 current and former Blue Origin employees published an explosive public essay in Lioness, criticizing the company for creating a sexist and unsafe working environment. “In our experience, Blue Origin’s culture sits on a foundation that ignores the plight of our planet, turns a blind eye to sexism, is not sufficiently attuned to safety concerns, and silences those who seek to correct wrongs,” the essay states. This weekend, the Washington Post also wrote a critical story about Blue Origin, in which employees described the company as “authoritarian bro culture.”

The writer of the Lioness essay, former Blue Origin employee Alexandra Abrams, expressed concerns about the upcoming Shatner flight. “I sincerely hope the NS-18 crew has a nominal flight this week. I grew up on ‘Star Trek,’’ and I remember when Jeff Bezos toured Shatner at Blue in Kent, Washington in 2019,” Abrams, former head of employee communications for Blue Origin, said in a statement to The Verge. “To me, Shatner’s presence serves as a reminder of how unlike the aspirational Federation we are today, and will continue to be if nothing changes. ‘Star Trek’ is about exploring our shared humanity & evolution as a species; I worry we’re becoming the Ferengi of our own story.”

Despite the safety concerns raised in the essay, Blue Origin has only seen success with the flights of its New Shepard rocket. Prior to its first crewed launch, Blue Origin successfully launched and landed New Shepard up to 14 times with three separate vehicles. The flight that carried Bezos and Funk went smoothly, as did a subsequent uncrewed research flight that sent 18 commercial payloads into space.

Takeoff this morning is scheduled for 10AM ET out of Blue Origin’s launch facility in Van Horn, Texas. The company plans to begin streaming live coverage of the flight 90 minutes before takeoff.

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