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William Shatner sets record in space with Blue Origin spaceflight

oldest person to reach the final frontier

CBS News

William Shatner, the 90-year-old veteran of countless imaginary space voyages playing Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, blasted off for real Wednesday, becoming the oldest person to reach the final frontier in a PR bonanza for Jeff Bezos and his rocket company Blue Origin.

Over the course of about 10 minutes, Shatner and three crewmates took off atop a hydrogen-fueled rocket, climbed to the edge of space more than 62 miles (100 km) up and enjoyed three to four minutes of weightlessness, along with spectacular views of Earth, before plunging back to a gentle parachute-assisted touchdown.

The flight marked only the second crewed launch of a New Shepard capsule since Bezos, his brother Mark, 82-year-old aviation pioneer Wally Funk and Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen took off July 20 on the company’s first such flight.

Shatner eclipsed Funk’s age record by eight years and John Glenn’s mark before that by 13.

“I want to see space, I want to see the Earth, I want to see what we need to do to save Earth,” Shatner told Gayle King on “CBS Mornings” before launch. “I want to have a perspective that hasn’t been shown to me before. That’s what I’m interested in seeing.”

Boshuizen and de Vries paid undisclosed sums for their seats aboard the New Shepard spacecraft, but Shatner was an invited guest of Blue Origin. Powers, a former NASA flight controller now Blue Origin vice president of flight operations, flew as a company representative.

While the New Shepard rocket and capsule are only capable of up-and-down sub-orbital flights, Shatner and his crewmates endured the same liftoff accelerations space shuttle astronauts once felt — about three times the normal force of gravity — and even higher “G loads” during the descent back into the lower atmosphere.

Even so, Shatner and his crewmates were considered passengers, not astronauts, aboard the automated New Shepard. But professional astronauts nonetheless welcomed them to the brotherhood of space travellers.

Especially Shatner.

“I’m impressed. I mean, he’s 90 years old and showing that somebody at his age can actually fly to space,” Matthias Maurer, a European Space Agency astronaut launching to the International Space Station at the end of the month, told CBS News.

“Even if it’s, let’s say, just a sub-orbital flight, I’m highly impressed, and I wish him all the best. Hopefully, it will be the experience of a lifetime. And yeah, I hope many more people will follow his steps and also experience space.”

Added Kayla Barron, a Navy submariner who’s flying to the station with Maurer and two others aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule: “It’s really awesome! Like who wouldn’t want to see William Shatner fly in space? Like, I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t.”

“For us watching these new companies with different missions, different equipment, different architectures for how they think about bringing more human beings into human spaceflight is just a win for all of us,” she said. “So we’re really excited to watch that flight, for sure.”

Blue Origin’s 18th New Shepard flight began at 10:50 a.m. EDT when the BE-3 engine powering the company’s 53-foot-tall booster ignited with a roar, throttled up to 110,000 pounds of thrust and lifted off from Launch Site One at the company’s West Texas launch site near Van Horn.

Climbing straight up, the booster quickly accelerated as it consumed propellant and lost weight, reaching a velocity of about 2,200 mph and an altitude of some 170,000 feet before engine shutdown.

The New Shepard capsule then separated from the booster at an altitude of about 45 miles and both continued climbing upward on ballistic trajectories, but rapidly slowing.

The onset of weightlessness began shortly after separation. All four passengers were free to unstrap and float about as the capsule reached the top of its trajectory and arced over for the long fall back to Earth.

The New Shepard capsule is equipped with some of the largest windows in a currently flying spacecraft, giving Shatner, de Vries, Boshuizen and Powers picture-window views of Earth far below.

Plunging back into the dense lower atmosphere, the passengers, back in their padded, reclining seats, were briefly subjected to more than five times the normal force of gravity before three large parachutes deployed and inflated, slowing the craft to about 15 mph.

An instant before touchdown, compressed-air thrusters were programmed to fire, slowing the ship to just 2 mph (3.22 km/h) or so for landing.

A few minutes earlier, the New Shepard booster flew itself back to a pinpoint landing a few miles away, reigniting its BE-3 engine, deploying four landing legs and settling to a concrete landing pad. Assuming no problems are found, the rocket will be refurbished and prepared for another flight.

The mission marked the sixth piloted commercial, non-government sub-orbital spaceflight in a high-stakes competition between Bezos’ Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, owned by British billionaire Richard Branson.

Virgin has launched four piloted flights of its winged spaceplane VSS Unity, most recently sending up Branson, two pilots and three company crewmates on July 11. At least one more flight is planned this year, with three researchers on board representing the Italian air force, before commercial passenger flights begin next year.

Blue Origin followed up the Bezos flight by launching a suite of NASA experiments on an unpiloted mission August 26. The flight Wednesday was the company’s 18th overall and the second with passengers aboard.

“I think it’s pretty amazing that 2021 is the year that really the human race is finally starting to go to space at scale,” Boshuizen told “CBS Mornings” before launch.

“I think we’ll look back at this date 50 years from now and go, wow, this really was a special time in history, just like the Wright brothers, when people started flying passenger planes. It’s really exciting to be part of history.”