More than a half-century since he first found fame as James Tiberius Kirk, fictional captain of the Starship Enterprise, and now entering his tenth decade of life, William Shatner has reached the final frontier for real and scored a new record as the oldest human being ever to enter space. Aged 90, the veteran Star Trek actor launched atop Blue Origin’s second crew-carrying New Shepard booster at 9:50 a.m. CDT Wednesday from the desolate Launch Site One in the West Texas desert.
The world’s first nonagenarian astronaut flew the ten-minute and 15-second trip to the edge of space shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. Chris Boshuizen, co-founder of Planet Labs, Inc., Glen de Vries of Dassault Systèmes and Blue’s own vice president of mission and flight operations, Audrey Powers. Reportedly, the New Shepard Crew Capsule bearing the world’s four newest astronauts reached an apogee of 351,185 feet, equivalent to 66.51 miles (107.04 kilometers) at the top of their suborbital “arc”, before returning smoothly back to Earth.
Two weeks ago, on 27 September, Blue Origin unveiled the first two crewmen assigned to NS-18. Chris Boshuizen, an Australian physicist who worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC) in Moffett Field, Calif., as a space mission architect, went on to co-found the San Francisco, Calif.-headquartered imaging satellite firm Planet Labs, Inc., in 2010 and served as its chief technology officer. Also named with Boshuizen was Glen de Vries, co-founder of Medidata Solutions, the world’s most-used clinical research platform, now incumbent vice-chair of life sciences and healthcare at Dassault Systèmes.
“This is a fulfilment of my greatest childhood dream,” said Boshuizen before today’s launch. “More importantly, though, I see this flight as an opportunity to inspire students to pursue careers in STEM and catalyze the next generation of space explorers. After all, our future of life in space is in their very capable hands.”
“I’ve spent my entire career working to extend people’s lives,” added de Vries. “However, with limited materials and energy on Earth, extending our reach into space can help humanity continue to thrive. Furthermore, astronauts can experience the “overview effect”, gaining a new perspective on how fragile and precious our planet, those resources and our civilization are. Playing a part in advancing the space industry and one day making their resources and that understanding available to everyone is an incredible opportunity.”
Although it was noted at the time by Blue Origin that the third and fourth NS-18 crew members would be announced “in the coming days”, one of them—Capt. Kirk himself, William Shatner—was already widely tipped to be in line for one of the seats. On 4 October, the 64th anniversary of dawn of the Space Age with the launch of Russia’s Sputnik 1 artificial satellite, the news went from rumor to being official.
Shatner, who celebrated his 90th birthday back in March, will surpass 82-year-old “Mercury 13” aviator Wally Funk as the world’s oldest spacefarer, only a dozen weeks after she made history with Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos and teenager Oliver Daemen aboard Blue Origin’s first crewed mission atop New Shepard. The veteran actor originated the role of James Tiberius Kirk way back in 1966 and his six-decade career has also encompassed writing, directing, producing, recording and equestrianism. He currently hosts and serves as executive producer for The UnXplained on the History Channel.
“I’ve heard about space for a long time now,” Shatner said. “I’m taking the opportunity to see it for myself. What a miracle.”
Rounding out the NS-18 crew is another familiar name, in the shape of Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s vice president of mission and flight operations. She began her career as an engineer and NASA flight controller, before training as a lawyer and joining Blue Origin in 2013.
Powers initially served as deputy general counsel and vice president of legal and compliance, prior to her current role which encompasses responsibility for all New Shepard flight operations, vehicle maintenance and launch, landing and ground support infrastructure.
Six months ago, Powers boarded the New Shepard Crew Capsule before the launch of the uncrewed NS-15 mission and climbed aboard a second time after touchdown to simulate the ingress and egress of astronaut personnel.
As its name implies, NS-18 marked the 18th flight of a reusable New Shepard vehicle since April 2015 and the specific booster supporting today’s launch was making its fourth trip to the edge of space in less than nine months.
The 59-foot-tall (18-meter) NS4 booster launched for the first time last January, reaching an altitude of 65.75 miles (105.82 kilometers) and demonstrating speakers, microphones, a crew alert system and push-to-talk buttons. The Crew Capsule also trialed cushioned wall-linings and sound suppression devices to reduce ambient noise levels and cooling and humidity controls to regulate temperatures, scrub carbon dioxide from the air and circumvent window-fogging.
Three months later, in mid-April the NS4 booster flew again. Before launch, Powers and three other members of the Blue Origin team donned flight suits, rode out to Launch Site One, climbed the stairs in the gantry and completed ingress, strap-in and communications checks with Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) Sarah Knights. The quartet disembarked before New Shepard’s launch, but after the successful landing of the Crew Capsule a few minutes later they participated in unstrapping and egress exercises.
History was finally made on 20 July, when NS4 made its third flight, carrying Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, aviation legend Wally Funk and 18-year-old student Oliver Daemen to an altitude of 351,200 feet, equivaent to 66.517 miles or 107.05 kilometers. In doing so, they passed the 62-mile-high (100-kilometer) “Kármán Line”, which represents the internationally-recognized edge of space. They went on to secure four Guinness World Records: the youngest and oldest humans ever to enter space, the first siblings to fly into space together and the first suborbital spacecraft with paying customers.
Another passenger-carrying flight was anticipated in the early fall, following comments made after the 20 July launch. Last month, Blue Origin identified Tuesday, 12 October as its preferred launch date, but was pushed back 24 hours to Wednesday in response to higher-than-acceptable forecasted winds during the vehicle rollout window.
According to Blue Origin’s senior director of mission integration and the NS-18 lead flight director Nick Patrick—a former NASA astronaut, two-time Space Shuttle veteran and seasoned spacewalker—Tuesday would have been a “difficult day” in terms of surface winds, with winds aloft also projected to be “outside our limits”. This was also expected to cause a slight hit for the second launch attempt on Wednesday, with T-0 pushed back from 8:30 a.m. CDT to 9 a.m. CDT. In any case, the Flight Readiness Evaluation was satisfactorily concluded on Tuesday afternoon.
The crew themselves completed a two-day training template, which reportedly includes 14 hours of demonstrations, classroom instruction and fit-checks inside the Crew Capsule. “Well, the crew of #NS18—the snake bites—have graduated from @BlueOrigin training!” tweeted de Vries with a measure of pride on Tuesday afternoon.
In Wednesday’s pre-dawn darkness, about 7.5 hours before the targeted liftoff time, the NS-18 stack was transported the two-mile (3.2-kilometer) distance from its assembly facility—nicknamed “The Barn”—out to Launch Site One. The process of loading liquid oxygen and hydrogen propellants aboard the booster commenced at T-3 hours. “The day has arrived,” Boshuizen tweeted. “Thank you for all the support.”
And shortly after 8:45 a.m. CDT, Boshuizen, de Vries, Shatner and Powers boarded their Rivian trucks for the trip out to the pad. Clad in their bright blue flight suits, they ascended four flights of steps to the top of the gantry, where the Tower Operations Team and Crew Member No. 7 Sarah Knights assisted them with ingress and strap-in protocols. The hatch of the Crew Capsule was closed and sealed at T-24 minutes.
After another lengthy hold at T-15 minutes, the clock resumed counting at 9:35 a.m. CDT. Passing within nine minutes, the distinctively British-accented Patrick could be heard polling his flight control team for their “Go/No-Go” status, completion of which allowed him to authorize the onset of the Terminal Count.
The gantry retracted away from the vehicle at T-2 minutes and a surprisingly quiet countdown net was suddenly broken by the transition to internal guidance at T-16 seconds and the call “Command Engine Start” at T-4 seconds. With a thrust of 110,000 pounds (50,000 kilograms), New Shepard’s powerful BE-3 engine roared to life and commenced a fast climb away from the West Texas desert.
The vehicle passed Max Q—a period of peak aerodynamic turbulence on the vehicle’s airframe—about 50 seconds later and the BE-3 shut down for Main Engine Cutoff (MECO) at two minutes and 20 seconds, by which time the stack had already reached an altitude a little over 200,000 feet, equivalent to more than 37 miles or 60 kilometers. Shortly afterwards, NS4 and the Crew Capsule parted company and the booster began its descent back to Earth.
Meanwhile, the Crew Capsule continued to coast upwards to an apogee of 351,185 feet, translatable to 66.51 miles or 107.04 kilometers. Boshuizen, de Vries, Shatner and Powers enjoyed roughly three to four minutes of microgravity before they headed back home. Announcing its arrival with a trademark sonic boom, NS4 alighted smoothly onto its landing pad at T+7 minutes and 20 seconds.
And three minutes thereafter, precisely timed at T+10 minutes and 15 seconds, after an almost-slow-motion descent beneath its three beautiful red-and-blue parachutes, the Crew Capsule touched down smoothly, wrapping up Blue Origin’s personal-best-beating fifth New Shepard flight of the year. The Kent, Wash.-headquartered organization said it expects to conduct one more crewed flight before the end of 2021, with “several more crewed flights planned for 2022”.
“Everybody in the world needs to do this,” Shatner told Jeff Bezos after landing. “What you have given me is the most profound experience. I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. I hope I never recover from this. I hope I can retain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it.”