Editor’s Note: Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. He is the author of several science books for general audiences, including the best-selling audio book “The Theory of Everything: The Quest to Explain All Reality.” He also produces a series of science education videos. Follow him on Facebook. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. View more opinions on CNN.
On Wednesday, Capt. James Tiberius Kirk is scheduled to head to space for one last time. Of course, that’s a bit of poetic license; Kirk is, after all, a fictional character. Instead, William Shatner, who played Kirk starting with the “Star Trek” TV show of the late 1960s, will become the oldest person to leave the confines of Earth and gaze out into what has been called “the final frontier.”
As an avid “Star Trek” fan, I am simply thrilled to see this journey occur. The show was groundbreaking in many ways, showing us a bright future for humanity, both technologically and socially, and it motivated many of us to explore science and engineering as careers.
As Shatner climbs into the New Shepard space capsule, he will be completing a karmic journey that the actor could never have anticipated as he played his role nearly half a century ago. Like me, billionaire Jeff Bezos is a serious “Star Trek” fan and was motivated, in part, by the television show. Bezos is the founder of Amazon and of Blue Origin, a space exploration company that built the craft that will lift Shatner and his three fellow passengers above the Kármán line.
Located 100 kilometers above sea level, the Kármán line is the internationally recognized boundary that separates Mother Earth and the cosmic expanse. If past launches are a good predictor, the entire flight – from takeoff to landing – will take less than 15 minutes. Shatner’s visit to space will be a brief one.
Admittedly, inviting Shatner to fly into space is a bit of a publicity stunt, but a lot of the early manned missions had their share of fanfare. While the technological achievements of the early space program were important, there were other motives to send humans into the heavens.
When Alan Shepard became the first American to travel into space and John Glenn the first to orbit the Earth, they were highly visible participants in the Space Race, in which the United States and the Soviet Union jockeyed for international prestige, with the Soviet Union leading the way. It could be said that the Apollo 11 landing on the moon decidedly swung the contest in America’s favor.
Wednesday’s launch is an event in a second space race – not between countries, but between billionaire tycoons. Bezos’ Blue Origin is not the only company that is in the space exploration business. There is also SpaceX, helmed by Elon Musk, co-creator of Paypal and CEO of Tesla, and Virgin Galactic, headed by Richard Branson, who has created many lucrative companies.
These three men are all wealthy visionaries who would like to see humanity eventually explore the stars. And, I have no doubt, they are keeping tabs on each other’s successes in fear of being left behind.
I would not classify Shatner’s trip as an innovative technical achievement. After all, Blue Origin has successfully launched people into space before. But there is no question that sending Capt. Kirk into space is great showmanship and will generate huge media attention.
One might think that I would be critical of showy and calculated displays of success, but I’m not really. They are motivational in the same way NASA’s early successes inspired my generation. As long as they are accompanied by a steady march of technological progress, I’m all for them.
While I am deeply aware of the difficulties associated with human spaceflight and the even larger issues in colonizing other planets, it’s also something I’ve dreamed about for a long time. As a child, I watched the imaginary U.S.S. Enterprise explore the galaxy and the very real Neil Armstrong stride across the moon. They inspired me to be a scientist and likely inspired Bezos and his competitors to create companies that hope to eventually take mankind among the stars.
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Shatner is an actor and not an engineer, nor an entrepreneur. He has never contributed directly to space exploration, but he was part of an influential science fiction dynasty that continues to motivate and excite young people to look to the stars and dream. I expect that flights like the one scheduled for this week will change a child’s life and maybe 50 years hence, humanity will be closer to realizing the dream represented by “Star Trek.”
Good luck, Capt. Kirk and the entire Blue Origins team. Go boldly.