The Cost of William Shatner’s ‘Most Profound Experience’
The actor got his oldest-in-space record for free, but most commercial astronauts will have to pay for their historic milestones.
Updated at 2:38 p.m. on Oct. 13, 2021.
William Shatner was a little nervous about that rocket. A week ago, during a CNN interview, his eyes went wide when the network showed a clip of a Blue Origin rocket taking off, streams of blazing exhaust unfurling from below. He’d never seen that footage before, he said, with all that “fire and brimstone.” “Oh my gosh,” the actor said. “Things like that go up and boom in the night. It’s a little scary.”
Shatner, clad in a cobalt-blue spacesuit, took that rocket to the edge of space this morning, along with three other passengers, for a few minutes of weightlessness and a beautiful view. Captain Kirk has now made it to space and back. Insert your favorite Star Trek reference here. (I’ve never seen the show—sorry! Did you want me to lie about it?)
The journey, Shatner said after, was “the most profound experience.” And it made history. The 90-year-old actor just became the oldest person to reach space, surpassing the previous record set by the aviation legend Wally Funk, 82, just a few months ago.
He also became the first Canadian actor to fly to space—not the first actor ever; Russia claimed that feat just last week—and the first person with a successful music career, and certainly the first winner of the World’s Championship Horse Show to go.
I present this slightly absurd list to illustrate that, thanks to commercial spaceflight, we’re entering an unprecedented time of space superlatives. Shatner didn’t pay for his new historic record—he flew on the New Shepard rocket for free—but others can, and already have: Another Blue Origin passenger, Oliver Daemen, at age 18, became the youngest person (and first teenager) to reach space because his dad, a private-equity executive, bought him a seat. There could be many firsts (the first opera singer, the first former James Bond, the first member of the royal family) and plenty of other extremes (the shortest, the tallest, the oldest yet again). And many of these superlatives will go to the highest bidder.
Space tourism was always going to expand our vision of spacefarers in this way. Even as it imposed new requirements for leaving Earth—money, for the customers booking the tickets, and luck, for the people they might decide to bring along—it has removed NASA’s stringent expectations about age, physical fitness, educational degrees, professional experience, and other factors. This new calculus was on display last month when a tech billionaire chartered a SpaceX journey and took three less-wealthy people with him. One of them, Sian Proctor, a geosciences professor whose astronaut application NASA had rejected, became the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft. Another, Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant, became the first person to go to space with a prosthesis, a titanium rod in her leg that she said would have kept her from becoming a professional astronaut.
“I think there will be just a constant stream of firsts,” Alan Ladwig, a former NASA program manager and the author of See You In Orbit? Our Dream of Spaceflight, told me. Quirky ones too. In the 1980s, Ladwig managed NASA’s spaceflight-participant program, an effort to fly ordinary citizens alongside professional astronauts, and he received a deluge of letters from interested candidates. “Everyone wanted to be the first of their profession to go,” Ladwig said. “People constantly wrote to me about wanting to be the first couple to get married in space, the first woman to have her baby in space,” even the first to have sex in space, he said. That would certainly make news. But you can imagine how quickly spaceflight superlatives could go the way of Mount Everest milestones, becoming extremely specific, too long, and probably too snoozy to fit into a headline. Last week, for example, scientists set a world record for the highest altitude on Earth at which a specific kind of ice sample has been extracted. I’m truly thrilled for them, but it’s not exactly front-page news.
And many private astronauts will have to grasp for a superlative that makes them stand out—because many of them will, ultimately, fit the profile of the spacefarers before them. People who are wealthy enough to afford a suborbital trip on Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic—or ultra-wealthy enough to buy an orbital journey on SpaceX—tend to resemble the majority of the nearly 600 people who have traveled to space in the past 60 years: male, white, and highly educated. And although both NASA and private space companies might feel public pressure to diversify their astronaut corps, the space agency is beholden to the taxpaying public, and Blue Origin is responsible for selling tickets. Blue Origin likely doesn’t have any real reason to lower its prices anytime soon either; when the company auctioned off some seats earlier this summer, it brought in $28 million, suggesting a sizable customer base with deep pockets.
So far, the men who have underwritten these flights seem aware of these optics. Jared Isaacman, who chartered the SpaceX mission in September, deliberately chose companions who could send a message about who space is for, instead of “a bunch of my pilot buddies.” He also donated $100 million of his own money to a hospital that treats children with cancer. For his inaugural flight in July, Jeff Bezos invited Wally Funk, who outperformed John Glenn himself on astronaut tests, and had waited decades for her turn in space. Bringing along such likable “regular” people helped protect these missions from some of the industry’s most glaring weak points. You might not like Bezos, but who could root against Funk? Or a beloved cultural icon like Shatner?
Blue Origin understands this tension, and is using it to its advantage. Bezos would rather the public pay attention to Captain Kirk in space than to recent allegations from current and former employees about Blue Origin’s toxic workplace environment. Blue Origin announced Shatner’s trip just days after the reports emerged. It’s an interesting, and perhaps effective, tactic: If you’re dealing with bad press, put a famous person, or someone with a feel-good story, on your next flight as a distraction. “[Billionaires] kind of insulate themselves, or they preempt the criticism, by involving these other entities—hospitals and worthy people who really do deserve to go to space,” Jordan Bimm, a science and technology historian at the University of Chicago, told me. “If it was just four billionaires in the Blue Origin capsule, we’d be having a different conversation right now. And instead, we’re talking about William Shatner.”
Bezos himself, dressed in a matching blue spacesuit, drove Shatner and the crew to the launchpad. Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s head of mission and flight operations, the sole woman on the crew, was the first company employee to try out the New Shepard. The other two passengers were—surprise!—tech executives. Oh, one of them is also a DJ. Another first, I guess.