In front of the camera, William Shatner has led many a fanciful space voyage as Captain James T. Kirk.
Now, at 90-years old, the actor has become the oldest person to ever visit space, onboard a rocket built by Blue Origin, the private spaceflight company created by billionaire Jeff Bezos.
For many, seeing Shatner land back on Earth after a sub-orbital flight, having experienced weightlessness, was a childhood dream fulfilled, a magical convergence between the realm of science fiction and reality.
Watching Shatner attempt to explain his experience is genuinely moving, as he gushes at length about the beauty of Earth, space, and of life itself; Captain Kirk was an unflappable hero, and there is a poetic irony in seeing Shatner so humbled. After landing, Shatner stated:
“To see the blue color [of the atmosphere] shoot by like that. Down there is mother, comfort – and up there is death. Is that what death is? It is so moving. I never expected it … I’m so filled with emotion. It’s extraordinary. I hope I never recover from this, maintain what I feel now. It’s so much larger than me. It has to do with enormity, the quickness of life and death. Oh my God! It’s beautiful in its own way.”
Surely, there are countless individuals who have dedicated their lives to the exploration of the universe, inspired by the ideals presented in Star Trek, especially in that iconic original series starring Shatner. Some, it seems, grew up and helped send the man to space.
But it’s difficult to ignore the fact that Jeff Bezos just landed himself an extraordinary PR win; Captain Kirk returns safely to Earth, singing the praises of Lex Luthor.
For Blue Origin, the PR stunt was perfectly timed; the company was recently hit with an open essay backed by 20 former and current employees, accusing the company of skirting safety measures, as well as cultivating a culture of sexual harassment.
While Shatner’s space flight attracted plenty of positivity, critics were quick to comment on the fact that space is in danger of becoming a billionaire’s playground, spewing an eye-watering amount of pollution for each rocket carrying its privileged cargo, while the world burns and economic inequality widens.
Bezos’ PR stunt lies in a strange, somewhat contradictory space between delight and despair, like a cigarette ad that manages to achieve a level of artistic merit, despite its insidious function.
It’s hard not to suspect Bezos of staring out into the cosmos with dollar signs in his eyes, seeing little but a treasure trove of raw materials, ready to convert into products for consumption. Shatner, endearingly, found his experience difficult to describe.
Indeed, Shatner seems genuinely overwhelmed by his view of Earth from above; his reaction echoes the awed tone in which astronomer Carl Sagan would talk about our planet, emphasizing the fragility of our “pale blue dot” floating amongst the stars.
Ideally, Shatner’s words might inspire a similar sense of reverence for the planet that birthed us; “Captain Kirk visits space” might be a cynical PR stunt, viewed in the wider context of a billionaire’s rush to privatize space travel, but it was, nevertheless, uplifting.