In a 1963 episode of “The Twilight Zone,” William Shatner had a nightmare at 20,000 feet. On a clear October day 58 years later, in the skies above West Texas, he was living the dream above 328,000 feet — the recognized point at which space begins.
It went off without a hitch: no gremlins on this flight.
“What you have given me is the most profound experience,” Shatner enthused to Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos after returning to Earth on Wednesday. “I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it.”
Shatner is among the first people to tell you he’s just an actor and only played a rocket man on TV. He has logged more seasons as cops and lawyers than he has as Capt. James T. Kirk on “Star Trek.” But beyond the symbolic and public relations value of sending a fictional starship captain into space for real, there’s the genuine achievement of sending an ordinary person — not a test pilot — to the final frontier.
Shatner, along with three other passengers, blasted off Wednesday aboard the second manned launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. With their entrepreneurial ethos, Bezos’ space launch company Blue Origin, along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other private firms, are changing the face of space travel — mostly by bringing down the cost.
For Capt. Kirk, living in the 23rd century, space travel was commonplace. When a 21st century actor can go up to space for a brief visit, it’s a sign that while space travel is not yet common, that possibility is at least on the horizon, even for common people like Shatner, who are more comfortable around horses than around rockets.
Shatner did set a record. At a spry 90 years old — and looking more like 70 — he’s now the oldest person to travel to space, breaking the previous mark set by 82-year-old Wally Funk just this past July on Blue Origin’s first manned launch. Shatner’s record will probably last a bit longer.
Fifty years ago, commercial space travel was the stuff of science fiction: Heywood Floyd reading the instructions for how to use the zero-gravity toilet during his flight to the moon in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It still sometimes seems like science fiction, as when the reusable rockets used by Blue Origin and SpaceX return to Earth, either in the Texas scrubland or on a barge floating out at sea. But it’s all science fact.
Still, it’s all experimental. Blue Origin and SpaceX still call their launches test flights, and they are. Space remains the domain of professional astronauts and billionaires. It will take many more such launches to open space to all, just as airplane travel went from something only the rich could afford to being within reach of virtually anyone.
Each launch means more data, and more data means better engineering, more reliability, greater safety and, eventually, lower costs.
Blue Origin can probably use all of the data it can get. The New Shepard rocket uses the company’s BE-3 engine. Blue Origin is currently more than four years late delivering its more powerful BE-4 engine to United Launch Alliance for ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, to be assembled at ULA’s Decatur plant. Already plans for ULA to launch a Vulcan this year have fallen by the wayside, and the new launch goal of next year seems increasingly unlikely.
The new space race isn’t the United States vs. the Soviet Union. It’s ULA and Blue Origin vs. SpaceX.