William Shatner and Blue Origin Crew Prepare to take Flight: Live Updates

ImageIn the “Star Trek" episode, “A Piece of the Action,” with DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard McCoy, center, and Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, right, in 1968.
Credit…CBS via Getty Images

The voyages of Captain James T. Kirk and the starship Enterprise in the 1960s created a fandom that has expanded exponentially over the decades, much like the cute but deadly tribbles of the original “Star Trek” television series. Now many “Trek” fans are excited as William Shatner, the man who embodies that role, readies himself to venture into space — for real.

“I think this is fantastic for the ‘Star Trek’ mythos, to have the guy who really started it all to go into space,” said Russ Haslage, who co-founded the fan organization The Federation, also known as the International Federation of Trekkers, with Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek,” in the 1980s.

Through the lens of “Star Trek,” human space travel has typically had a rosy tint. Much of the show’s universe takes place hundreds of years in the future, with humanity venturing into the Milky Way after surviving a brutal 21st century. Homo sapiens expand from our solar system under the flag of United Earth, a founding member of the United Federation of Planets, an egalitarian alliance of intelligent species. That vision, started in Mr. Roddenberry’s original TV series, is a culmination of the events set in motion by Yuri Gagarin in 1961, when he became the first human to travel to space.

Captain Kirk is arguably the most extreme incarnation of the show’s high-minded, moralistic vision.

“He’s the guy who’s at the center of all of this,” said Mr. Haslage, who’s planning to offer live commentary on the launch’s livestream via The Federation’s YouTube and Facebook pages. “There wouldn’t be any of this without Captain Kirk.”

Carly Creer, a moderator for a “Star Trek” Facebook group with over 150,000 members, grew up watching the original series with her father. Mr. Shatner is a regular at an annual “Star Trek” convention in Las Vegas that she often attends.

“If we didn’t have Captain Kirk and that awesome force that he created, we wouldn’t have the amazing fandom that we’ve got,” Ms. Creer said.

The involvement of billionaires like Jeff Bezos selling private spaceflight experiences to wealthy customers has generated considerable criticism. But among fans like Ms. Creer there is a fascination with what both NASA and private companies are working to accomplish.

“I’ve really appreciated how SpaceX and Blue Origin have stepped in,” she said. “I really think it’s just amazing. It’s been so wonderful to watch, because as a fan of ‘Star Trek’ all you want is to see that future that Gene Roddenberry created so well.”

In a live video stream, Blue Origin’s astronaut sales director, Ariane Cornell, emphasized the company’s safety record, saying “safety has been baked into the design of New Shepard from day one.” Earlier this month a group of current and former employees criticized Blue Origin’s safety culture in an online essay.

It’s a chilly morning near Van Horn, Texas, where William Shatner and three others in Blue Origin’s second New Shepard crew are about to get in their blue flight suits ahead of launching to space.

Credit…Mike Blake/Reuters

The New Shepard tourist rocket has been a bright spot for Blue Origin, but other areas of the company have recently faced turmoil and difficulties.

In September, Alexandra Abrams, the former head of employee communications at Blue Origin, published an essay with 20 unnamed current and former employees of Blue Origin saying the company’s work culture was rife with sexism and that internal safety concerns were often dismissed by management. Working quickly to launch the company owner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos into space on the New Shepard took priority over focusing on safety matters, the employees said.

Since publishing the essay, Ms. Abrams said in an interview that she had received supportive messages from current Blue Origin employees and engineers. She said she also had heard from employees at other companies describing their workplace difficulties. That response surprised her, as she had expected an onslaught of attacks from others in the small aerospace industry. “I personally was very heartened to see the responses, from everyone but Blue Origin,” Ms. Abrams said.

Blue Origin disputed the allegations in the essay, saying in a statement that the company has an internal hotline for sexual harassment complaints and that New Shepard was the “safest space vehicle ever designed or built.” The company also said Ms. Abrams was fired over “repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations.”

Ms. Abrams said that was false, and that she was fired in 2019 over her disagreement with a new policy that she was asked to help rollout to prohibit workers from banding together to take legal action over workplace issues and force them to settle disputes in private arbitration with the company. Her decision to speak out about Blue Origin’s work culture, she said, came after hearing complaints and troubling stories from friends still at Blue Origin. The essay’s release made the current and former employees nervous, and resurfaced trauma from the sexual harassment some had experienced, Ms. Abrams said, “but they knew it was the right thing to do.”

“Even if there are absolutely zero issues with all of Blue’s programs, which is absolutely not the case, a toxic culture bursting with schedule pressure and untrustworthy leaders breeds and encourages failures and mistakes each and every day,” she added.

One immediate challenge Blue Origin is facing concerns its bigger, more powerful rocket, New Glenn, whose debut launch has been delayed by about two years. And development of the engines that power New Glenn, called BE-4, has been marred by technical hurdles. The company is selling those engines to another company, United Launch Alliance, which needs them to power its next-generation Vulcan rocket. The Pentagon picked Vulcan last year to launch the majority of its satellites to space through 2027, and a forthcoming NASA mission will use it to send a robotic lander to the moon.

Delivery of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines to U.L.A., though, is months behind schedule, worrying Pentagon officials who fear the Vulcan rocket might not be ready in time to launch its first national security satellites in 2022. Blue Origin had pitched its New Glenn rocket to the Air Force for that contract but lost to U.L.A. and SpaceX, the company led by Elon Musk and whose Falcon rockets will also launch some Pentagon satellites.

Blue Origin was hit with another loss in April on a lucrative NASA program to send the first American astronauts to the moon since 1972. The company partnered with three seasoned aerospace companies — Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper — to develop and pitch its Blue Moon lunar lander to NASA. But the agency, facing a funding shortfall, decided it could only afford to select a cheaper bid pitched by SpaceX.

Blue Origin protested NASA’s decision to pick SpaceX with the Government Accountability Office, which adjudicates contract disputes, but lost. The company then sued NASA to overturn SpaceX’s award in federal court, where litigation is expected to wrap up sometime in November.

Credit…LM Otero/Associated Press

New Shepard is the centerpiece rocket of Blue Origin’s space tourism business. A booster rocket at the bottom stands six stories tall, with a capsule sitting on top that can seat up to six crew.

The suborbital rocket is named after Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space in 1961 and one of the astronauts who walked on the moon. It takes off from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One, a launchpad in rural West Texas about 100 miles from of El Paso.

The full mission lasts about 10 minutes. New Shepard launches to an altitude of roughly 63 miles, a widely recognized marker of where space begins and known as the Kármán line.

At peak altitude, the booster rocket releases its crewed capsule. The booster then begins a descent back toward the ground, reigniting its single engine to land vertically on a slab of concrete five miles from where it launched.

Back in space at the same time, the crew capsule is suspended in a free fall some 63 miles high. The passengers experience roughly four minutes of weightlessness in microgravity as well as views of Earth’s slightly curved horizon where its atmosphere meets space. Each seat has its own window of 3.5 feet by 2.3 feet.

“I’m thrilled and anxious, and a little nervous and a little frightened, about this whole new adventure,” Mr. Shatner said during an interview on NBC’s “Today” show on Monday.

During Blue Origin’s first crewed flight in July, passengers unbuckled and floated throughout the 530-cubic-foot capsule, amused by the weightlessness. They tossed candies to one another and did somersaults before getting back in their seats.

During the capsule’s free fall toward land, it deploys an initial set of parachutes to brake its speed, then another set of three bigger parachutes to carry the capsule softly to land at about 15 miles per hour. Milliseconds before landing in the desert — also not far from the launchpad — the capsule releases a burst of air from its underside to cushion the touchdown. The seats inside are supported by a scissor-like mechanism that further limits the impact.

Blue Origin had boasted that the windows on New Shepard’s crew capsule are the biggest to fly in space, but Elon Musk’s SpaceX snatched that superlative in September when it launched its Crew Dragon capsule to low-Earth orbit with a new glass dome that stretches 46 inches wide and 18 inches deep, covering 2,000 square inches in all.

Credit…Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

The star name in the four-person crew that Blue Origin will launch to the edge of space on Wednesday is William Shatner.

For those who haven’t been paying attention since these voyages of the star ship Enterprise began more than 50 years ago: Mr. Shatner, now 90, played the indomitable Captain James T. Kirk in the original “Star Trek” television series that debuted in 1966. The show aired for three seasons, and Mr. Shatner returned as Kirk with members of the original cast for six films from 1979 to 1991. Captain Kirk perished in 1994’s “Star Trek: Generations.”

As the Trek media empire expanded since the original series (it now encompasses a growing multiverse of films and shows, as well as video games, merchandise, conventions and more), Mr. Shatner’s place as a bona fide science-fiction celebrity has only strengthened.

“It looks like there’s a great deal of curiosity in this fictional character, Captain Kirk, going into space,” Mr. Shatner said in a promotional video posted on Twitter by Blue Origin. “So let’s go along with it. Enjoy the ride.”

But his life in the public eye is far from limited to “Star Trek.”

For years, Mr. Shatner played a hyperbolized version of himself as “The Negotiator” in commercials (some with a Trek twist) for the travel agency Priceline.

He won two Emmy Awards and snagged nominations for his roles in the interconnected legal dramas “The Practice” and “Boston Legal” in the 1990s and 2000s (his “Star Trek” work never received Emmy or Oscar nods). He also received an outstanding guest actor nomination for a series of cameos as The Big Giant Head in “3rd Rock From the Sun.”

His age has not halted his work. Earlier this year, he was the lead actor in the romantic comedy “Senior Moment” alongside Jean Smart, 20 years his junior at 70.

Offscreen, Shatner has released several albums that straddle the line between music and spoken word poetry (a style that produced a particularly memorable performance of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards). In 2012, he came to Broadway with a one-man show that traversed his life and career. And even as a nonagenarian, he’s kept up with the kids and brought his distinct character to Twitter, which has served as an ideal platform to hype his newest journey.

Mr. Shatner, in an interview with CNN last week, said he’s bringing along on his jaunt to space a “little blue satchel” of mementos that includes “three or four little trinkets” from family and friends.

But during the flight, he intends to stay focused on looking back at planet Earth.

“I plan to be looking out the window with my nose pressed against the window,” he mentioned during a chat last week with Blue Origin employees, clips of which the corporate posted on Twitter.

He then added, “The only thing I don’t want to see is a little gremlin looking back at me. Are you sure that’s not going to happen?”

Joey Roulette contributed reporting.

Credit…Paul Ratje/Reuters

Liftoff is scheduled for 10 a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, and Blue Origin will stream it live on its YouTube channel. The video will begin about 90 minutes before the flight.

The launch was initially scheduled for Tuesday morning, but windy conditions over West Texas prompted Blue Origin to push the launch back 24 hours. If more strong winds pop up on Wednesday, the company could choose to delay the flight by another 24 hours, to Thursday.

Credit…Blue Origin, via Associated Press

Three other passengers will join Mr. Shatner on Wednesday’s flight:

  • Audrey Powers, a Blue Origin vice president who oversees New Shepard flight operations; like Mr. Shatner, she did not have to pay for her seat.

  • Chris Boshuizen, a co-founder of Planet Labs, a company that builds small satellites, also known as CubeSats, that are used by assorted clients for monitoring Earth from orbit.

  • Glen de Vries, a chief executive and co-founder of Medidata Solutions, a company that built software for clinical trials.

Fortunately for all three, none will be wearing a red Starfleet uniform during the flight.

Dr. Boshuizen or Mr. de Vries are the second and third paying passengers to fly on a Blue Origin flight. The first was Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old man from the Netherlands. The company has not said how much any of these customers paid for their seats on the flights.

As ticket-purchasing customers, they are something like early investors in an industry executives hope will one day be cheap enough for a broader swath of the public to take advantage of.

Ms. Powers all but flew to space on New Shepard in April, when she and three other company executives were “stand-in astronauts” for Blue Origin’s 15th flight of the New Shepard rocket. She and her colleagues essentially performed a dress rehearsal for the missions with astronauts aboard. The executives went through all the motions of getting ready for a launch — climbing up the rocket tower, boarding the capsule, closing its hatch and testing out its communications system — until about 15 minutes before liftoff when they exited the capsule and left the pad.

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