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Monday, October 18, 2021

William Shatner says becoming oldest ever astronaut was ‘most profound experience I can imagine’

By Alexander Martin, technology reporter

If the first launch from Blue Origin was overshadowed by Jeff Bezos – and it was, due to the billionaire’s tactless comments about Amazon staff and customers paying for the journey – then the company’s second manned mission delivered something wholly different.

As an actor William Shatner is no stranger to dramatic monologues, but his touching words – “I hope I never recover from this” – were special. They weren’t rehearsed or considered. They were immediate and honest and poured out of him after he batted away an offer of champagne and turned to the recovery team rather than the billionaire for a human connection and hug.

The difference between how Bezos and Shatner not only described their spaceflights but responded to them emotionally is the crucial question facing Blue Origin.

The company hasn’t disclosed its ticket prices but the real question isn’t whether the company will ever break even – that is extremely unlikely if it sticks to space tourist flights.

The real question is whether Blue Origin itself recovers from Shatner’s words. There are two futures for the company, one in which it is simply a vehicle for the extraordinarily wealthy (which usually means extraordinarily boring) to dip into outer space and brag about it, and another in which it offers an opportunity for people like William Shatner to revaluate their place in the world and evangelise what they have found.

Words like Shatner’s are rare but not unique when people experience the Earth from space. Carl Sagan’s beautiful Pale Blue Dot speech – narrated over a distant photograph of Earth captured by the Voyager 1 space probe – continues to inspire the young and old alike.

There is no better measure of how successful this evangelism is than Jeff Bezos himself. It is, if we’re honest, not unusual these days for billionaire to pledge to donate away their wealth. It is not unusual to hear them express concerns about the environment and about inspiring the next generation of “dreamers and builders” as Blue Origin’s charitable foundation says.

What would be unusual would be for these humanitarian sentiments to cause Jeff Bezos to reassess how his company forces delivery drivers to urinate in bottles. To look again at its attempts to prevent warehouse workers from unionising, or if it drove the company to engage constructively with criticism about its impact on competition.

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