Today, on 13 October 2021, 60 years after doing it on TV, Captain Kirk flew to space for real. Ninety-year-old William Shatner, who played Kirk in the original Star Trek, boarded a Blue Origin rocket – the spaceflight company owned by Jeff Bezos – with three other passengers, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Except Bezos, obviously, who has already been there, for about ten minutes, at a small personal cost of $5.5bn. (Blue Origin, Bezos’s spaceflight company that ran the mission, has not disclosed the cost of a ticket on board today’s flight.)
The little jaunts of Bezos and fellow billionaire space coloniser Richard Branson (he’s been too, so Captain Kirk is actually floundering in at least third place) – in which they fly to the border of space for the most elitist spiritual experience imaginable, treating decades of astronomical science like a glorified rollercoaster – feel so aggressively of our time that I have previously neglected to take them seriously. But watching the enormous phallic object silhouetted against the pink-tinged Texas sunrise eventually blast off, its blue background getting darker and darker as the camera panned up, made me take note. Morgan Stanley has estimated that the space tourism industry could be worth $1trn by 2040, so perhaps this – strapping scifi actors into rockets and hoping for something profound to happen – really is the start of something.
In the Blue Origin promo video filmed before the flight, Shatner, who is now the oldest person to have been to space, said the experience so far was “life-changing” largely because of the interesting people he was meeting. Yet when he came back down to Earth, he seemed to have changed his mind. Watching two blurry white blobs float around on a screen for ten minutes was much less fun than watching Star Trek, but Shatner was – if you’ll excuse me – over the moon. “What you have given me is the most profound experience,” he told Bezos afterwards. “Everybody in the world needs to do this.”
Unfortunately, everybody in the world doesn’t have the $30m-odd at which Blue Origin flight tickets are being auctioned, or the cult status to be given one for free. Fair play to Shatner, who seemed to say that the flight had helped him understand the boundary between life and death, and who has also just made a lot of Star Trek fans very happy. But there is something so uniquely disingenuous about Bezos and his company claiming to be pushing forward science, and wanting to live on Mars to stop climate change, and then drafting in veteran fictional space travellers for a novelty brand partnership. In what possible sense has today’s flight contributed to the common good? It has emitted 200-300 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and was over almost as soon as it began. It had no scientific or societal value beyond its status as a spectacle, a peacocking of wealth and human dominance.
Contrary to Morgan Stanley’s estimates, when surveyed by YouGov in 2019, 48 per cent of Britons said they would not travel to the moon if given the opportunity. By far the most commonly cited reason was, amusingly: “Not interested”. Viewing our planet from a different perspective; the adventure of a lifetime; defying gravity; potentially discovering alien life? Nah. Not interested, mate.
I can empathise. I wouldn’t get on a rocket if you paid me all of Bezos’s billions. Just like I have absolutely no desire to scuba dive, or jump out of a plane strapped to an adrenaline-pumped Australian man, I cannot imagine anything worse than being fired into infinite nothingness where there is no light, oxygen or water, even if it’s only for a few minutes. We’re not supposed to be up there. We work absolutely perfectly down here, where there is already enough to worry about. Of course billionaires want to move humanity to space to stop pollution: that makes their lives much funner and easier, and their legacy much sexier, than the system overhaul and corporate shame required to combat climate change from where we are now.
After Shatner dismounted and began, visibly emotional, to try to verbalise to Bezos what he had just experienced, members of the team were handing out bottles of champagne to spray. “It was different from what I thought,” Shatner was saying, pausing to think how to express it – what he later described as the experience of breaking through “the comforter of the sky”. Bezos was distracted, looking to the rest of the party. “Hey, gimme a bottle,” he called.