At the last frontiers, Shatner’s return from space


William Shatner was at a loss for words.

It was an unusual situation for the 90-year-old talkative actor, recording artist and TV presenter, although it did give him some slack. It had just been propelled more than 65 miles into the sky and then, along with its three companions from the Blue Origin spacecraft, gently landed in Texas. It took her breath away. For a short time.

And then they just couldn’t silence him. One could almost sympathize with Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of the space flight company, whom Shatner bent his ear with his impressions of the short flight.

“Was it death?” He inquired of the darkness of the space he saw in front of him. “Is this how death is?” Oops and let’s go. Jesus. It was so emotional for me.

Amidst violence, political unrest and a lingering pandemic, 2021 has been the year of space tourism for the rich and famous. Most passengers paid for their journeys on suborbital capsules launched by companies run by Bezos and his fellow billionaires Richard Branson and Elon Musk. But in a shrewd publicity move, Bezos invited TV’s Captain James T. Kirk to step up as a guest.

It was kind of a loop for the Baby Boomers, who grew up reading (and believing!) Earth, and following the adventures of Kirk, Spock, Uhura and everyone else in deep outer space and imaginary.

As we grew up the space was different, although it was still exciting. The rockets did not land, but fell into the ocean as expensive garbage. The promise that we would go to the moon ourselves has been broken. But a handful of Americans went there, and they described their travels to us not as breathless travelers, but as the military and engineers that they were.

But the very brief moon age ended with Apollo 17 just before Christmas in 1972.

We have grown older, and just as the vast majority of us realized that we would never be professional baseball players, rock stars or senators, we gave up on our dreams of being a space traveler.

Oh sure, some older people might have a chance. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the planet, hero of our childhood, made a second trip to space at 77 years old. But then, he was truly a US senator, as well as an astronaut.

As people in my generation got older, we realized two things: we wouldn’t go into space; and there is, on the contrary, a very different final frontier that we would rather not think about.

Yet here is this 90-year-old man, of the pre-boomer generation, standing next to a capsule equipped with large windows facing tourism.

So, despite all the legitimate questions about a handful of billionaires using all of these resources to send the rich, famous, or lucky tourists into space, this aging baby boomer and cancer survivor hails Captain Kirk. And all the other space tourists too, including Hayley Arceneaux, the cancer survivor who a month earlier became at the age of 29 the youngest American in space.

In 1936, five years after Shatner’s birth, the movie “Things to Come” hit theaters. Based on the work of science fiction writer HG Wells, it portrays a struggle between human desires for exploration and comfort. Will there ever be rest, asks one of the characters, after a rocket sends her child into space?

Enough for the man, replied his companion. “But too much, and too soon, and we call it death.”

The line comes to mind after hearing Shatner’s words upon landing – words unmatched by any of those servicemen launched into space by NASA decades ago.

“The blue over there and the black up there,” he said. “Here is mother and Earth and comfort and there is – is there death?

Is there death? Not at the moment, there is none. Not today. Not for dreams, or the desire to make them come true.

Robert Greene is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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