Live Updates: William Shatner Completes Trip to Space Aboard Blue Origin Rocket

The actor who played Captain Kirk and three others went to the edge of space in a tourist spacecraft built by Jeff Bezos’ company.,

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:51 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:51 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The crew is expected to drive to the pad where the New Shepard booster landed to speak with reporters about their flight.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:29 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:29 a.m. ET

Jim McKinley

Mr. Shatner told Mr. Bezos, “What I would love to do is to communicate as much as possible the jeopardy, the vulnerability of everything.” He added, “This air which is keeping us alive is thinner than your skin.”

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:28 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:28 a.m. ET

By Joey Roulette

Spectators near Van Horn, Texas, watched the New Shepard rocket carrying Mr. Shatner to the edge of space on Wednesday.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

Blue Origin considers the customers who fly aboard the New Shepard spacecraft to be astronauts, but the Federal Aviation Administration, which formally grants governmental recognition to astronauts, has yet to say it agrees.

Since 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates how space companies run their launch sites, has awarded private crews aboard private spacecraft “Commercial Space Astronaut Wings” — small gold pins that officially designate a passenger as a “commercial astronaut.”

The pins are akin to the badges awarded to military pilots who reached space in the 1960s, and only a handful of private citizens have received the wings. Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, was the most recent recipient after her SpaceShipTwo flight to space in 2019.

But all the private activity in space lately has spurred adjustments to the F.A.A.’s pinning process.

On the day Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin and Amazon, launched to space in July, the agency revised its criteria for awarding the wings, requiring individuals who go to space to be classified as a crew member, rather than just a spaceflight participant.

To be a crew member, the person must have completed training before their mission “on how to carry out his or her role on board or on the ground so that the vehicle will not harm the public,” the rules state. Crew members also must have “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.”

Still, the head of the F.A.A.’s commercial space office also has discretion to grant an honorary astronaut status to anyone who flies to space and demonstrates “extraordinary contribution or beneficial service” to commercial spaceflight.

Blue Origin calls its New Shepard passengers astronauts and awarded its first crew — Mr. Bezos, his brother Mark, Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen — its own company-branded pins in a ceremony hours after their flight. The crews of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight in July and SpaceX’s Inspiration4 orbital mission in September received similar pins from those companies.

Blue Origin has submitted applications to the F.A.A. for a formal designation of the passengers as commercial astronauts, but it has yet to receive a determination, a company spokeswoman said. The F.A.A. declined to say whether Mr. Shatner or any of his fellow passengers could be classified as commercial astronauts.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:26 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:26 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

After celebrations around the capsule, the crew lined up to get custom astronaut pins from Blue Origin. Mr. Bezos fastened the pins to each passenger. “OK, guys, we have four astronauts before you,” he said.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:17 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:17 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

“I’m so filled with emotion with what just happened,” Mr. Shatner said to Mr. Bezos on the ground, breaking into tears. “I hope I never recover from this,” he added.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:14 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:14 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

Mr. Shatner was next to exit the capsule and began describing his experience to Mr. Bezos, “It’s indescribable,” he said.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:14 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:14 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

Family and friends met the passengers outside the capsule as they exited. Ms. Powers, the Blue Origin vice president, emerged first, hugging her sister.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:12 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:12 a.m. ET

By Joey Roulette

Oliver Daemen occupied a seat on the New Shepard that Blue Origin auctioned off for $28 million.Credit…Blue Origin

Blue Origin has declined to publicly state a price for a ticket to fly on New Shepard. The company is nearing $100 million in sales so far, Mr. Bezos has said. But it’s unclear how many ticket holders that includes.

“We don’t know quite yet” when Blue Origin will publicly announce a price, Mr. Bezos told reporters in July after his flight to space. “Right now we’re doing really well with private sales.”

Oliver Daemen, the Dutch teenager aboard Blue Origin’s first crewed flight in July, was occupying a seat that the company auctioned off for $28 million, a steep number that even shocked some company executives. Of that total, $19 million was donated equally to 19 space organizations.

Mr. Daemen, 18, wasn’t the winning bidder. His father, a private equity executive, was the runner-up in the auction and was next in line after the actual winner. That individual, who has not been named, plunked down $28 million before postponing their trip over a scheduling conflict, Blue Origin said at the time.

Tickets to the edge of space on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo were hiked to $450,000 in August, from $250,000, when the company reopened ticket sales after a yearslong hiatus.

Flights to orbit — a much higher altitude than Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic’s trips go — are far more expensive. Three passengers to the International Space Station next year are paying $55 million each for their seats on a SpaceX rocket, bought through the company Axiom Space.

Many wealthy customers and space company executives see the steep ticket prices as early investments into the nascent space tourism industry, hoping the money they put down can help lower the cost of launching rockets.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:11 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:11 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

Mr. Bezos, dressed in the same flight suit he wore to space in July, joined recovery teams at the capsule and gave double thumbs-up to each crew member through the spacecraft’s windows. Recovery personnel set up steps by the hatch door to help the passengers exit.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:09 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:09 a.m. ET

Daniel Slotnik

Shatner scheduled a philosophical message to appear on Twitter as he soared into the skies.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:06 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:06 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The crew, waiting to be helped out of the capsule, “have all given the thumbs up that they are doing A-okay,” said Blue Origin’s Ariane Cornell.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:03 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:03 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

Recovery teams are racing toward the capsule while the crew waits inside.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:01 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:01 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The capsule has landed on the desert floor, kicking up a plume of dust and sand. “That was unlike anything they described,” Shatner said on the way down.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 11:00 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 11:00 a.m. ET
William Shatner with a wax figure of Captain Kirk in 2009.Credit…Fred Prouser/Reuters

When William Shatner, 90, traveled to the edge of space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard on Wednesday he became the oldest person ever to reach such heights.

Mr. Shatner, whose name has been synonymous with space exploration since he played Captain James T. Kirk in the original “Star Trek” series more than half a century ago, became the first nonagenarian to cross the Karman line, the widely recognized boundary between the atmosphere and space about 63 miles above the Earth.

Asked whether he was in training for the roughly 10-minute mission, Mr. Shatner joked before the flight that the regimen had been intense.

“All the time,” he told Anderson Cooper on CNN. “I’m running miles, miles.”

Mr. Shatner’s voyage came hot on the heels of one by Wally Funk, who at 82 was the oldest person to travel to space when she took part in a Blue Origin flight in July with Jeff Bezos, the company’s owner.

Ms. Funk excelled at tests for astronauts in the space program in the 1960s, before Mr. Shatner played Captain Kirk, but NASA did not allow women to become astronauts at the time.

John Glenn, who was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, also became the oldest person to reach space when he flew aboard a space shuttle mission more than 35 years later at the age of 77. Unlike Mr. Shatner or Ms. Funk, Mr. Glenn’s trip went to orbit, which requires a much more powerful rocket than the one powering Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft.

The youngest person ever to travel to space also flew on Blue Origin’s July flight. He was Oliver Daemen, 18, of the Netherlands.

Mr. Shatner told Mr. Cooper that “I’m a little bit nervous about the flight.”

But curiosity was a more powerful motivator, and Mr. Shatner said he was excited by the question “What will I see when I’m out there?”

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:59 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:59 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The capsule is descending from space under three big parachutes. “How about that, guys?,” Audrey Powers was heard saying on the live stream.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:57 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:57 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The booster has touched down successfully, emitting a thunderous sonic boom across the desert.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:56 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:56 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

About five minutes into the mission, the crew should have unbuckled from their seats and floated freely around their capsule in the weightlessness of space. So far, Blue Origin has not released audio or video from inside the spacecraft.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:53 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:53 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The crew is in space. The capsule has separated from the booster, continuing its ascent toward a peak altitude of around 66 miles above the Earth.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:52 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:52 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

New Shepard has reached “Max Q,” or the maximum aerodynamic pressure during its ascent to the edge of space. The capsule will soon separate from the booster.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:49 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:49 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

New Shepard lifts off, carrying William Shatner, Audrey Powers, a Blue Origin vice president, and two paying customers, Chris Boshuizen and Glen de Vries, to the edge of space.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:48 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:48 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

Less than two minutes from launch, and the bridge that connects the tower to the crew capsule has retracted.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:42 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:42 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

Mission personnel just checked off a laundry list of confirmations needed before proceeding with the launch. All of the rocket’s systems are good for liftoff, which is about seven minutes away. “I guess that’s it, huh?” Shatner was heard saying from the capsule.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:40 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:40 a.m. ET

By Joey Roulette

Virgin Galactic’s passenger rocket plane VSS Unity, carrying Richard Branson and crew, beginning its ascent to the edge of space above New Mexico in July.Credit…Virgin Galactic, via Reuters

Mr. Shatner probably won’t be the only celebrity flying to the edge of space on a privately built spacecraft. Virgin Galactic, the space tourism firm founded by Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur behind the Virgin Group, has a waiting list of hundreds of wealthy customers who want a trip on the company’s SpaceShipTwo space-plane.

Like New Shepard, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital ship flies to the edge of space. But it begins its trek attached to a larger carrier plane that takes off from a runway like a commercial airliner. Once it reaches the right altitude, SpaceShipTwo drops from the carrier plane and fires its rocket engine, launching the rest of the way toward the brim of Earth’s outer atmosphere, giving tourists a few minutes of weightlessness in space before free-gliding back to land.

Mr. Branson flew to space aboard SpaceShipTwo in July, earlier than originally planned and nine days before Mr. Bezos flew New Shepard. His SpaceShipTwo flight, with two pilots and three company employees also on board, was seen as a move to beat his rival billionaire entrepreneur to space.

While Blue Origin’s commercial tourism business is underway, Virgin Galactic is largely pausing flights with paying customers until late next year. It may complete one more flight this month carrying passengers from the Italian air force.

The two companies also face competition, at least for the most well-heeled passengers, from Elon Musk’s SpaceX. For a much higher price, around $55 million in some cases, customers can launch to low-Earth orbit for a few days inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, an acorn-shaped pod that is also being used to send NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX launched its first fully private mission to space in September, sending four citizens on a three-day trip orbiting Earth. One of the passengers, Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur, bought the seats for his three crewmates.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:35 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:35 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The hold on the launch countdown clock is lifted, now ticking down to a liftoff time of around 10:50 a.m.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:28 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:28 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The countdown clock remains paused at T-15 minutes. The last mission in July also paused at the same time before liftoff for about eight minutes.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:24 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:24 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

Wally Funk, the July mission’s oldest passenger, told the crew “I hope this flight will be the most fantastic experience of your life as it was mine.” Mark Bezos, Jeff’s brother who also flew on the first crewed flight, said “You lucky bastards,” eliciting laughs from Mr. Shatner and his fellow crew.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:21 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:21 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

Blue Origin’s “CapComm,” or the capsule communicator who talks to the passengers from mission control, read messages from New Shepard’s first crew in July. Oliver Daemen, the debut mission’s 18-year-old passenger, wished the crew well on their flight and said “I can assure you that it will be better than your best imagination.”

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:19 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:19 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The launch countdown clock is now paused again, 15 minutes before New Shepard’s planned liftoff. The four would-be astronauts remain inside the capsule.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:18 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:18 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

Mr. Bezos, who followed the crew all the way up the launch tower in his own Blue Origin flight suit, bid farewell to the crew inside the capsule, then closed the pod’s hatch door before leaving the pad.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:07 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:07 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The passengers walked across a bridge atop the launch tower that took them to the crew capsule, each ringing a bell before boarding the spacecraft.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:01 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 10:01 a.m. ET

By Joey Roulette

The New Shepard crew floating in near-zero gravity on Blue Origin’s sub-orbital first human flight this summer.Credit…Blue Origin, via Reuters

Blue Origin has test launched New Shepard 15 times without anyone on board. During each flight, the capsule, where passengers sit, has landed safely.

The booster, which carries the astronauts to space, crashed on its first launch. The crash occurred during its attempt to land, but the booster rockets stuck clean landings on every flight that followed.

In case things go awry during New Shepard’s ascent to space, the capsule is equipped with thrusters capable of jetting itself away from the booster rocket should a disaster like an explosion occur. Blue Origin tested this system in 2016, launching New Shepard to demonstrate the capsule’s abort system. Solid-fueled thrusters exerted 70,000 pounds of force for less than two seconds, swiftly distancing the capsule from its booster. The capsule then deployed a set of parachutes and landed softly.

For the company’s first crewed flight in July, the rocket carried Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Blue Origin and Amazon, to the edge of space along with his brother Mark, a Dutch teenager, Oliver Daemen, and Wally Funk, an 82-year-old pilot who was denied entry to NASA’s astronaut corps in the 1960s because of her sex.

That four-person mission was a crucial marketing opportunity for Blue Origin’s space tourism business and a display of Mr. Bezos’ confidence in the rocket’s safety record — if it can fly the world’s richest man, as well as the youngest and oldest people to go to space and back, Mr. Bezos has indicated, the rocket is ready to fly anyone.

While Blue Origin says its equipment is safe, the federal government doesn’t regulate the safety of rocket and capsule systems like New Shepard. The Federal Aviation Administration signs off that a rocket launch site is safe to the surrounding public, but the government agency does not have a say in how safe space vehicles have to be for their passengers. Passengers like Mr. Shatner must sign agreements before their flights acknowledging the risks associated with launching on top of a rocket to the edge of space.

In 2004, Congress put a moratorium on federal safety regulations for space tourists, giving the space industry a “learning period” in which companies can innovate without worrying about regulatory hurdles. That period is set to expire in 2023.

Though New Shepard and its capsule have a clean safety record, its safety culture has come under criticism. Earlier this month, 21 current and former Blue Origin employees said in an essay that the company’s work culture was rife with sexism and that safety concerns about New Shepard were often dismissed by management. Working quickly amid a race to launch Mr. Bezos on New Shepard took priority over focusing on safety matters, the employees said.

Blue Origin disputed those allegations, saying the company had an internal hotline for sexual harassment complaints and that New Shepard was the “safest space vehicle ever designed or built.”

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 9:58 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 9:58 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The crew has arrived at the launch pad in a pair of electric pickup trucks, stopping in front of the rocket for a photo opportunity before heading to the base of the launch tower. They’ll climb about four flights of stairs to board the capsule sitting on top of the New Shepard rocket.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 9:48 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 9:48 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The launch countdown clock has resumed after a roughly 30-minute pause, which gave mission personnel some more time to monitor winds in the area and get the rocket ready for launch. Jeff Bezos is driving Shatner and the crew toward the launch site.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 9:42 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 9:42 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The pause in the countdown clock has lasted 25 minutes so far, gradually pushing the liftoff time back. But a late launch isn’t a big deal for suborbital New Shepard flights as it is for rockets that go into orbit or to the International Space Station. New Shepard reaches an altitude just short of entering orbit and returns less than 10 minutes later.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 9:23 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 9:23 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

The launch countdown clock is paused at T-45 minutes, giving mission teams time to analyze winds in the area around the launchpad. The mission was originally scheduled to launch Tuesday, but heavy gusts pushed liftoff back to Wednesday.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 9:11 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 9:11 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

Jeff Bezos is in Texas and will guide the crew as it prepares for the launch, staying with the passengers all the way until they board the capsule.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 9:03 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 9:03 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

Blue Origin’s New Shepard, a 60-foot-tall rocket, was launched without humans 15 times before flying its first crewed mission in July. Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin’s billionaire founder, blasted off with his brother Mark and two others for that flight.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 8:54 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 8:54 a.m. ET

By Jacob Meschke

In 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.”

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 8:45 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 8:45 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

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.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 8:40 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 8:40 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site

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.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 8:05 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 8:05 a.m. ET

By Joey Roulette

The Blue Origin rocket facility near the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Earlier this month, a whistleblower alleged the company’s work culture was rife with sexism and that internal safety concerns were dismissed by management.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.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 7:01 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 7:01 a.m. ET

By Joey Roulette

The Blue Origin launch site near Van Horn, Texas, on Tuesday morning.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 Karman 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.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 6:01 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 6:01 a.m. ET

By Jacob Meschke

Mr. Shatner speaking at the William Shatner Spotlight panel during the first day of New York Comic Con 2021 at the Jacob Javits Center earlier this month.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 personality to Twitter, which has served as an ideal platform to hype his latest adventure.

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 said during a chat last week with Blue Origin employees, clips of which the company 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.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 6:01 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 6:01 a.m. ET

By Joey Roulette

Preparing to go live on launch day in Van Horn, Texas, in July.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.

image

Oct. 13, 2021, 6:01 a.m. ETOct. 13, 2021, 6:01 a.m. ET

By Joey Roulette

From left, Chris Boshuizen, Mr. Shatner, Audrey Powers and Glen de Vries, the crew of the New Shepard’s second flight.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.

Leave a Reply