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William Shatner’s trip to space shows power of science fiction

By Jim DeLillo

Earlier today, actor William Shatner — who played Star Trek’s iconic Captain Kirk on television and in the movies — became the oldest person to ever go to space.

He was a passenger on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft, a guest of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, a life-long Star Trek fan. There were also two paying passengers on the ten-minute flight, in addition to a Blue Origin crew member.

“Everybody in the world needs to do this,” Shatner said after landing back on Earth. “That was unbelievable.”

William Shatner greeted by Jeff Bezos at the conclusion of today’s New Shepard spaceflight. (Image courtesy Blue Origin.)

Scroll to the bottom of this article for Blue Origin’s full video of the flight.

Shatner stirs the imagination

Shatner’s flight stirs the imagination, more than many earlier flights, because of the bond we have with his character.

Alan Ladwig

“We were missing that emotional connection,” said Alan Ladwig, senior advisor for the Star Harbor Space Academy.

Ladwig was instrumental in forming the Space Flight Participant Program for NASA in 1985, leading the way for private citizens to experience spaceflight. Unfortunately, the first participant of that program was Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who was killed in the Challenger disaster. The program was discontinued shortly after.

Private citizens did go back into space. Since 2001, ten private individuals were carried up by the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, two of who are currently on the International Space Station filming a Russian movie. Four more went up last month on the SpaceX’s Inspiration4 flight.

But none have the cultural impact that Shatner does.

The actor’s flight resonated with Ladwig.

“It was a fabulous experience for Shatner,” he told MetaStellar. “You could clearly see that when he got out of the capsule. You could see he was eloquent in his passion.”

Spaceflight is getting more accessible for the average person, he said. In five to ten years, he added, it might reach the mass market.

Prices have already dropped significantly. The first space tourist, Dennis Tito, paid a reported $20 million for his trip in 2001. Today, prices range from $250,000 to $450,000.

David Hitt

The future we saw in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is finally coming true, said David Hitt, author of Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story.

“Twenty years after the real year 2001, we don’t have human missions to Jupiter or, thankfully, murderous computers,” he told MetaStellar. “But we have finally realized that vision of being able to buy a commercial ticket to outer space.”

This accomplishment actually owes a debt of gratitude to Shatner, he added.

“There have been, literally, generations of space industry engineers who were inspired on their journey by Star Trek,” he said. “So how awesome, and how appropriate, is it that as we finally live in the future we were promised to back in the late sixties, Captain Kirk got to play a role in ushering it in?”

Sci-fi’s influence dates back to the earliest days of spaceflight

But science fiction’s influence goes back even further.

Wernher von Braun, who helped develop the rockets that launched the United States’ first space satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958, was inspired by science fiction.

“Dr. Wernher von Braun read Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as a child, and by age 15 was visualizing what an astronaut would need to travel to space,” said Pat Ammons, senior director of communications at U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

Capsule drawing by Dr. Wernher von Braun. (Image courtesy U.S. Space & Rocket Center.)

The center actually has a drawing of the inside of a capsule by von Braun, she added.

Pat Ammons

As NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s official visitor center, we have on display the National Historic Landmark Saturn V rocket and many other milestones in space exploration that grew from what was once seemingly mere fantasy,” she told MetaStellar.

Today’s flight continues that tradition, she said.

Science fiction has long fueled the imagination of future engineers, scientists, and astronauts,” she said. “For many, Captain Kirk personifies the possibilities of space exploration, so it was a thrill to watch William Shatner experience in real life what his character did on the screen.”

Watch full video below:

Edited by Melody Friedenthal

Jim DeLillo writes about tech, science, and travel. He is also an adventure photographer specializing in transporting imagery and descriptive narrative. He lives in Cedarburg, WI with his wife, Judy. In addition to his work for MetaStellar, he also writes a weekly article for Telescope Live.