Science

William Shatner blasts off to where no 90-year-old has gone before: space

Hollywood's Captain Kirk, 90-year-old William Shatner, blasted into space on Wednesday in a convergence of science fiction and science reality.

'It was unlike anything they described,' Star Trek actor says from descending capsule

Hollywood's Captain Kirk, 90-year-old William Shatner, blasted into space Wednesday in a convergence of science fiction and science reality.

The Star Trek hero reached the final frontier aboard a ship built by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin company.

Shatner and three other passengers soared to an estimated 107 kilometres over the West Texas desert in the fully automated capsule, then safely parachuted to the desert floor in a flight that lasted just over 10 minutes.

"That was unlike anything they described," Shatner said as the capsule descended toward Earth.

"What you have given me is the most profound experience," an exhilarated Shatner told Bezos after climbing out of the hatch. "I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don't want to lose it."

William Shatner, centre, describes what the g-forces of the Blue Origin liftoff did to his face as Chris Boshuizen, left, and Glen de Vries look on during a media briefing near Van Horn, Tex., on Wednesday. (LM Otero/The Associated Press)

He said that going from the blue sky to the utter blackness of space was a moving experience: "In an instant you go, 'Whoa, that's death.' That's what I saw."

The jaunt made Shatner the oldest person to go to space. He eclipsed the previous age record — set by a passenger on a similar trip on a Bezos spaceship in July — by eight years.

Sci-fi fans revelled in the opportunity to see the man best known as the stalwart Capt. James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise boldly go where no star of American TV has gone before.

Shatner said ahead of the countdown that he planned to spend his approximately three minutes of weightlessness gazing down at Earth, his nose pressed against the capsule's windows.

"The only thing I don't want to see is a little gremlin looking back at me," he joked, referring to the plot of his 1963 Twilight Zone episode titled Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

Bezos is a huge Star Trek fan — the Amazon founder had a cameo as an alien in one of the later Star Trek movies — and Shatner rode free as his invited guest.

The blastoff brought priceless star power to Bezos' spaceship company, given its built-in appeal to baby boomers, celebrity watchers and space enthusiasts. Shatner starred in TV's original Star Trek from 1966 to 1969, back when the U.S. was racing for the moon. After that, he went on to appear in a string of Star Trek movies.

WATCH | At 90, William Shatner lifts off into space:  

The science behind William Shatner’s space trip

2 months ago
2:32
Host of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks Bob McDonald talks to Andrew Chang about what William Shatner experienced during his brief space trip. 2:32

Bezos himself drove the four to the pad, accompanied them to the platform high above the ground and cranked the hatch shut after they climbed aboard the 18-metre rocket. The capsule, New Shepard, was named for first American in space, Alan Shepard.

"This is a pinch-me moment for all of us to see Capt. James Tiberius Kirk go to space," Blue Origin launch commentator Jacki Cortese said before lift off. She said she, like so many others, was drawn to the space business by shows like Star Trek.

The flight comes as the space tourism industry finally takes off, with passengers joyriding aboard ships built and operated by some of the richest people in the world.

Shatner strapped in alongside Audrey Powers, a Blue Origin vice president and former space station flight controller for NASA, and two paying customers: Chris Boshuizen, a former NASA engineer who co-founded a satellite company, and Glen de Vries of a 3D software company. Blue Origin would not divulge the cost of their tickets.

Shatner milked his upcoming flight for laughs last week at New York Comic Con. The actor said Blue Origin informed him he would be the oldest guy in space.

"I don't want to be known as the oldest guy in space. I'm bloody Captain Kirk!" he exclaimed. Then he stammered in a faux-panicky voice: "Captain Kirk, going where no man ... I'm going what? Where am I going?"

He confessed: "I'm Captain Kirk and I'm terrified."

Jokes aside, Blue Origin said Shatner and the rest of the crew met all the medical and physical requirements, including the ability to hustle up and down several flights of steps at the launch tower. Passengers are subjected to nearly 6 G's, or six times the force of Earth's gravity, as the capsule returns to Earth.

Shatner shooting into space is "the most badass thing I think I've ever seen," said Joseph Barra, a bartender flown in from Los Angeles to help cater Blue Origin's launch week festivities. "William Shatner is setting the bar for what a 90-year-old man can do."

It was Blue Origin's second passenger flight and used the same capsule and rocket Bezos used for his own launch three months ago. 

Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson kicked off the U.S.-based space tourism boom on July 11, riding his rocketship to space. Bezos followed nine days later aboard his own capsule. Elon Musk stayed behind as his SpaceX company launched its first private flight last month, sending a billionaire, a cancer survivor and two ticket winners into orbit.

Parachutes slow the descent of the Blue Origin capsule, with Shatner and others on board, near the company's spaceport near Van Horn, Texas, on Wednesday. (LM Otero/The Associated Press)

And last week, the Russians sent an actor and film director to the International Space Station for movie-making.

"We're just at the beginning, but how miraculous that beginning is. How extraordinary it is to be part of that beginning," Shatner said in a Blue Origin video posted on the eve of his flight. "It looks like there's a great deal of curiosity about this fictional character, Captain Kirk, going into space. So let's go along with it and enjoy the ride."

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