Tech

William Shatner’s space trek evokes Blue Origin’s highs and lows

New Shepard crew portrait
Future suborbital spacefliers Audrey Powers, William Shatner, Chris Boshuizen and Glen de Vries pose in front of Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship. (Blue Origin Photo via Instagram)

Star Trek captain William Shatner’s scheduled suborbital space trip is bringing a renewed flood of attention to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture — but like a movie reboot, the storyline is more complex the second time around.

Three months after Bezos took a seat on his company’s first-ever crewed spaceflight, Shatner’s celebrity is sparking a string of feel-good interviews, with his three fellow fliers playing supporting roles. Tech entrepreneurs Chris Boshuizen and Glen de Vries are paying undisclosed fares. Like Shatner, Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s vice president for New Shepard mission and flight operations, is flying for free.

The foursome are scheduled to lift off from Launch Site One in West Texas at 8:30 a.m. CT (6:30 a.m. PT) Wednesday, aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship. They’re in the midst of a couple of days of pre-launch training, documented on this morning’s network news shows.

Most of the interviews touched upon the one-day delay in the flight due to a forecast of unacceptable winds for Tuesday, but during the CBS interview, Shatner also volunteered a shout-out to Bezos’ long-term vision of having millions of people living and working in space.

“Jeff Bezos’ concept of doing all this is to build industry, homes, to live in close connection with Earth and function close to Earth,” Shatner said on CBS. “And that’s a vision that I think is very practical and worth getting behind.”

 

This week’s scheduled flight is just one small step toward Bezos’ vision: Like the first crewed flight in July, it’ll involve going up to a height beyond the 100-kilometer (62-mile) space boundary for a few minutes of weightlessness and a picture-window view of the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space.

The trip is due to last about 10 minutes, ending with the autonomous landing of the rocket booster and the parachute-aided touchdown of the crew capsule. Shatner, who at 90 is in line to become the world’s oldest spaceflier, will have to endure several G’s of acceleration. But the experience is far less intense than, say, the three-day orbital flight that billionaire Jared Isaacman and his three crewmates took in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule last month.

Shatner’s stardom — and the fact that his suborbital space trip is coming courtesy of the world’s richest individual — are among the factors that have brought this week’s flight out of the domain of space developments and into the media mainstream. The event has also brought Jeff Bezos (and his companion Lauren Sanchez) more deeply into the social media mainstream as well:

At the same time, the fresh wave of attention serves to highlight the challenges that Blue Origin is facing on other fronts.

Some of those challenges were known when Bezos flew in July: the delays in developing the next-generation BE-4 rocket engine and the orbital-class New Glenn rocket, plus the failure to win continued NASA funding for a lunar landing system. But since July, Blue Origin has also had to deal with allegations of sexual harassment and questions about flight safety.

During a CNN interview, Powers specifically addressed the safety question. “We’ve very methodically moved to these human flights that we’ve just started recently, and safety has always been … our top priority,” she said.

A newly published Washington Post report expands upon claims that Blue Origin’s managers fostered an “authoritarian bro culture” — and cites concerns about “a lack of intervention from Bezos.” There are also reports that Bezos is devoting more time and attention to the situation at Blue Origin now that he’s stepped down from his role as Amazon’s CEO.

Competition with SpaceX, which has had far more success on the space frontier, is said to be one of the motivating factors for Bezos. “He’s super jealous of SpaceX,” the Post quoted an unnamed industry official as saying.

Bezos obliquely addressed the controversy in one of his latest tweets, which featured a screenshot of a 1999 Barron’s magazine cover skewering “Amazon.Bomb” at a time when the company’s adjusted share price was ranging between $40 and $100. (Current share price, on an adjusted basis, is in excess of $3,200.)

“Listen and be open, but don’t let anybody tell you who you are,” Bezos tweeted. “This was just one of the many stories telling us all the ways we were going to fail.”

In reply, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted a single emoji: a second-place medal.



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