People have flown into space since 1961. Private people will increasingly be a large portion of humans that venture to the high frontier. None have had or likely will have the reaction to the experience as actor William Shatner, the iconic Captain Kirk from “Star Trek.”
About a year ago Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and CEO of Blue Origin, had what seemed to be the brilliant idea of sending Shatner on a suborbital hop on the New Shepard rocket. Indeed, Shatner gushed in awe and wonder about the experience at the time.
That was then. Now, Shatner has just published his latest memoir, “Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder.” He says that his experience of flying into space was depressing.
He writes, “It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness.”
Shatner concluded, “My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral.”
The spectacle of an actor who is best known as playing the captain of a futuristic starship being such a Debbie Downer about space travel is at once disheartening and aggravating. Blogger Rand Simberg had one theory as to why, noting, “He probably thought he’d see stars. He should try to do an orbital trip, and see the universe from orbit on the dark side of the planet.”
Shatner had taken his suborbital hop into space during the day, when the sun blots out the stars, making space the black void that apparently disheartened him. Had he taken his suborbital hop at night or, as Simberg suggested, gone on an orbital flight, he would have had the opportunity to see stars and galaxies on the night side of the planet that would have likely imparted that awe and wonder he had expected. Bezos should consider launching his passengers at night. Their experience would be so much more glorious.
Shatner admitted experiencing what author Frank White referred to as “the Overview Effect” that many space travelers feel when witnessing the fragile beauty of the Earth. But even that sight depressed him. Compare and contrast Shatner’s feelings with those of Haley Arceneaux, the cancer survivor and St. Jude’s physician’s assistant on her Inspiration4 space flight.
She said, “The feeling of viewing our Earth with its complete and absolute beauty and peace is difficult to put into words. I cried the last time I was in the cupola looking at Earth because I knew it was likely the last time I’d ever see it from that perspective, and I was incredibly overwhelmed emotionally with how much gratitude I felt in that moment.”
Virtually everyone who has flown in space has reported that the experience was a positive one. The experience manifested itself differently for different people.
For some astronauts, flying in space elicited religious awe. The crew of Apollo 8 famously read from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the moon. Apollo moonwalker Buzz Aldrin took holy communion on the surface of the moon.
Other space travelers created art to express what they experienced. Apollo 12 moonwalker Alan Bean had a second career turning out paintings depicting the Apollo moon landings. Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first human to walk in space, created visual art in an attempt to impart the joy of space travel.
Shatner quoted from the film “Contact” in which the character played by Jodie Foster, overwhelmed by the beauty of the universe, exclaims that “They should’ve sent a poet.” Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has proposed taking a crew of poets, artists, photographers and writers on a trip around the moon on board a SpaceX Starship. That mission is still a work in progress, but who better to impart the experience of space travel than a crew of modern-day Homers, DaVincis and Shakespeares? Dennis Tito, the original private space traveler, and his wife have reserved a second Starship voyage around the moon.
Closer to home, Jared Isaacman’s Polaris missions are proceeding apace. The first, dubbed Polaris Dawn, is now scheduled for March 2023. The second Polaris flight may feature a reboost of the Hubble Space Telescope. The third flight will be aboard a SpaceX Starship. Each of the flights will add to the number of people who have experienced the high frontier of space.
Earth as seen from afar is by all accounts beautiful. However, space has its own beauty and glory, with the power for transcendence that has changed those who have experienced it.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.