When William Shatner returned to Earth, on Wednesday morning, from a four-minute sojourn into space aboard a Blue Origin rocket, he appeared genuinely and profoundly moved. Shatner touched down in the West Texas desert with the crew’s other three members, Audrey Powers, a former space-station flight controller who is now a Blue Origin vice-president, and two paying passengers: Chris Boshuizen, a former NASA space-mission architect and the co-founder of Planet Labs, and Glen de Vries, a software entrepreneur. Jeff Bezos, who stepped down as Amazon’s C.E.O. three months ago to focus on Blue Origin, his private aerospace company, and who was on the company’s first human flight, in July, was there to welcome them back. He twisted a latch and opened the capsule, and the crew, including Shatner—who, at ninety, had become the oldest person to travel above the Kármán line, the boundary to outer space—stepped out. The two men embraced.
Shatner almost immediately began to explain the feeling of escaping the Earth’s atmosphere, but waited patiently while Bezos stopped him to grab a bottle of champagne, which he sprayed on the other crew members as well as the assembled guests. “Everybody in the world needs to see it,” Shatner continued. “This comforter of blue that we have around us. We think, Oh, that’s blue sky. And then suddenly you shoot through it, all of a sudden, like you whip off a sheet when you’ve been asleep, and you’re looking into blackness. Into black ugliness.” He began to gesture down and then up, speaking in the trademark cadences that are so fondly familiar to fans of his appearances as Captain James T. Kirk, the commander of the Starship Enterprise, on “Star Trek.” “There is mother and Earth and comfort, and, there . . .” He gestured into the air, squinting toward the sun. “Is—is there death? Is that death? Is that the way death is?” Bezos, a longtime Trekkie who had a cameo role as an extraterrestrial in the 2016 film “Star Trek Beyond,” nodded. “I mean, whatever those other guys are doing,” Shatner added, likely referring to Bezos’s billionaire competitors at SpaceX (Elon Musk) and Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson). “What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine.” His voice cracked, and Bezos hugged him again. “I hope I never recover from this,” Shatner said.
A moment later, he added, frankly, “This is now the commercial—it would be so important for everybody to have that experience.” His ride on Blue Origin’s second human space launch, a year and a half in the making, is clearly part of a plan to engage public interest in private ventures beyond our atmosphere, and he seemed aware of his role in that project. Blue Origin has said that its ultimate goal, rather than shuttling wealthy people into space, is to advance technologies to more easily get the carbon-dioxide emissions that fuel climate change into space. It’s an effort that Bezos has said will “take decades to achieve,” adding, “big things start with small steps.” (He has also committed to spend ten billion dollars in the next ten years to fight climate change through the Bezos Earth Fund.) Other, more plausible plans for addressing the climate crisis are closer at hand—some, for example, are included in the Biden Administration’s infrastructure bills. Still, Shatner gamely made the rounds of cable-news chat shows ahead of his flight. “He’s got this great vision of what he wants to do, to put industry up in space and let the pollution dissipate up there,” he told Anderson Cooper, speaking of Bezos. “It’s a great idea. It can’t be done too soon, by the way.”
Shatner has had a long life in the public relations of space. There was an obvious symbiotic relationship between “Star Trek” and the real-life space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1957, the Russians put a dog (Laika) into orbit. In April, 1961, they put a man (Yuri Gagarin) into orbit; a month later, the United States did, too (Alan Shepard), and President Kennedy announced that NASA would get Americans to the moon by the end of the decade. Four years later, both countries set astronauts adrift in space, outside their capsules, and television networks green-lit sci-fi space shows. In 1965, CBS picked up “Lost in Space.” In September, 1966, NBC responded with “Star Trek.” “A NASA executive discovered that every time they launched a manned rocket our ratings went up, meaning people were very interested in space,” Shatner writes in his autobiography “Up Till Now,” published in 2008. “And when our ratings went up Congress voted more money for the space program.” NASA officials invited Shatner to sit in a lunar space capsule and to experience a simulated flight, he said. As a surprise, they created a model of the Enterprise and set it on a flight path outside the capsule window.
In 1969, “Star Trek,” then in its third season, lost its coveted Monday-night time slot to “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” Its ratings suffered, and NBC cancelled the series. The final episode aired in June, just a month before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the lunar surface. Our nonfictional galactic adventures were soon struggling, too. The enormous budget of the space program had already faced opposition from legislators and activists who wanted to prioritize domestic priorities, such as the war on poverty. In the seventies, with the Soviets beaten in the race to the moon, and Richard Nixon, a fiscal conservative, in charge, public appetite for costly space exploration diminished, and government spending began to flow away from the Apollo program.
In 1978, Shatner, in the middle of starting the “Star Trek” film franchise, criticized what he saw as NASA’s public-relations failures. “We need a goal and a dream. The Russians are very prosaic. Their space program is very mechanical and militaristic. Ours has magic to it,” he told the Indianapolis News. “But if the public isn’t acquainted with what’s going on in the space program, it’s going to tell Congress to spend the money on something else.” In 1984, Ronald Reagan, hoping to reconjure some of that magic, announced that NASA would send a member of the public, a teacher, into space. Tragically, two years later, as school students watched from their classrooms, Challenger, the shuttle meant to take Christa McAuliffe, a thirty-seven-year-old social-studies teacher from New Hampshire, into orbit, blew up a minute and thirteen seconds after launch, killing the entire crew. Shatner was watching, too. “The O-ring was frozen,” he told an audience at New York’s Comic Con, a few days before his Blue Origin spaceflight. “The O-ring didn’t work. And the rocket exploded.”
Shatner noted that Blue Origin engineers frequently referred to their calculations for the launch as a “best guess.” “I’m going up in a rocket, and our best guess is it should be fine,” he told the Comic Con audience. “I’m terrified,” he admitted, as he sat and gripped his heart. “I’m Captain Kirk, and I’m terrified.” He stood up. “I’m not really terrified,” he said, laughing. “Yes, I am. It comes and goes like a summer cold.” Happily, this time, the best guess was good enough. (In September, Alexandra Abrams, who was dismissed two years ago as the head of Blue Origin’s employee communications, published an essay detailing a toxic work environment at the company, a description that she said was endorsed by twenty other former and current Blue Origin staff members. The essay also claims that executives pushed workers in a way that threatened to sacrifice safety for speed. Blue Origin responded by saying that it maintains and monitors a 24/7 anonymous hotline for misconduct allegations, and that the company stands by its safety record.)
“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” a movie with an environmental theme—as it happens, directed by Leonard Nimoy, and one the most successful in the Shatner-led “Star Trek” film series—opened in theatres in November, 1986, a few months after the shuttle disaster. (In a moment of infelicity, the film, which was dedicated to the Challenger crew, begins with an interplanetary council watching the explosion of the Starship Enterprise.) It is the twenty-third century, and Earth is on the verge of ecological collapse, owing to the effects of a mysterious spacecraft hovering above the atmosphere; it is transmitting humpback-whale songs into the oceans and will not leave until there’s a reply, but humpbacks are now extinct. Captain Kirk, aboard a “borrowed” spaceship, sells his crew on a radical idea: the only way to save the planet is to plunge at warp speed into the orbit of the sun and sling their ship into a past where the cetaceans still exist—the San Francisco Bay Area of the nineteen-eighties. Kirk finds some whales, but bringing them back to the future proves difficult. Spock, the sage half-Vulcan second-in-command, is trying to work out the physics of the crew’s solar slingshot home. The ship’s doctor, Leonard McCoy, urges Spock to make his “best guess.” Spock replies, “Guessing is not in my nature, doctor.”
In a way, Shatner as Kirk and his crew of brash explorers are a perfect avatar for Bezos and his fellow-billionaires, though riding into space to save the planet from environmental apocalypse is more likely to work in fiction than in life. Shatner’s own commitments, meanwhile, remain firmly terrestrial. Mars, he said, fresh from his foray into space, is not going to cut it. “What I would love to do is to communicate, as much as possible, the jeopardy,” he told Bezos, as they stood in the desert. “The vulnerability of everything—it’s so small. This air which is keeping us alive is thinner than your skin.”
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