Dramatic week in crewed spaceflight

Long March 2F carries Shenzhou 13 from Jiuquan, 15 Oct 2021 (franceinfo/CGTN)

Shenzhou 13 left Jiuquan aboard a LM2F on 15 October 2021 at 1623 UT, carrying Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping, and Ye Guangfu to the Tiangong space station. Shenzhou 13 is the first mission to Tiangong that will last 6 months, following Shenzhou 12 earlier this year, which lasted 3 months and inaugurated the new station.

Shenzhou 13 may be the last mission to “turn out the lights” and leave Tiangong crewless. Next year, after Shenzhou 14 bolts two new modules onto the Tianhe station core, Tiangong should be ready for continuous use.

Expedition 65 Crew gathered for a feast, 08 Oct 2021. Thomas Pesquet [center, back row] took command the same day. Filmmakers Klim Shipenko [teal shirt] and Yulia Peresild [long hair, back row] were aboard filming Вызов. (NASA JSC)

Filmmakers Klim Shipenko and Yulia Peresild have been aboard the ISS since 5 October filming the space-medical drama Вызов. That mission is planned to end 17 October 2021 with the return of Soyuz MS-18. Their return took a turn for the dramatic as a planned test firing of MS-18’s engines failed to shut off on time, toppling the ISS in a Tony Hawk-style 540 and requiring 30 minutes to correct. In the realm of crew-rated, computer-controlled, liquid-fuelled engines, it is a failure mode that should be unique, except that a similar incident occurred just 3 months ago following the arrival of Nauka, the ISS’s newest segment.

Though far more modest in scale, the nascent space tourism industry officially entered the glitz-and-glamour age as Blue Origin rolled out the red carpet (well actually, the blue steps) for William “Bill” Shatner. Shatner blasted off alongside three others in RSS First Step from Blue Origin’s launch site in Culbertson County, Texas, leaving earth’s atmosphere behind for a few minutes after liftoff on 13 October 2021 1449 UTC.

Shatner, the 90 year old Canadian actor, has done everything from Shakespeare to spoken-word albums, but is most famous for the starring role of Starfleet officer James T. Kirk in 79 TV episodes, 21 animated installments, and 7 feature films in the Star Trek franchise between 1967 and 1994. On 13 Oct 2021, he harvested the space seed his performances planted in the hearts of generations of technologists and set his own toes in the cosmic ocean. Upon landing, he returned the favour by interpreting his experience with the full powers of a master wordsmith.

Blue Origin’s webcast featured both a preflight interview and postflight quips from Shatner, which just had to be transcribed.

The stage for the postflight is set as follows:

Landing in the dusty West Texas desert, the parachute ropes strewn around the capsule were wrangled in by pickup trucks and attendants like an oversize county fair ride. Each passenger lurching out of the capsule’s short hatch had high-fives and hugs awaiting as they stepped down the blue stepstool into a gaggle of well-wishers rushed in through the sagebrush.

The others took quickly to their kin, as it was plain what the film crew was waiting for – the words of William Shatner — whose words began to flow in his traditional stream-of-consciousness with dramatic pause and emphasis. After trading a few words with Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos, Shatner set into his observations.

“Not only is it different from what you thought, it happens so quickly.”

“You know, the impression I had, that I never expected to have, is you’re shooting up — in this blue sky –” Shatner paused as the crowd showered themselves with champagne.

“What you have done — everybody in the world needs to do — this. Everybody in the world needs to see, and think about it.”

“It was unbelievable. Unbelievable, I mean, the little things, the weightlessness — but to see the blue colour go WHIP BY YOU! And now you’re staring into blackness. That’s the thing…” Shatner’s fingers outstretched as his hands grasped upward.

“The covering of blue — this sheet, this blanket, this c– this comforter of blue that we have around us, we think ‘Oh, that’s a blue sky’ and then suddenly you shoot through it all, as though you whip off a sheet when you’re asleep, and you’re looking into blackness, into black ugliness, and you look down, there’s the blue down there, it’s the black up there that’s — it’s just — ” Shatner motioned upward, then downward toward the ground.

“There is Mother Earth, comfort, and there’s …” Shatner motioned upward again. “Is there death? I don’t know! Is that Death? Is that the way Death is?”

Shatner zinged his right hand upward. “WHOOP! And it’s gone… Jesus…”

“It was so moving…” Shatner said, his hands tented over his face in surprised wonder.

“This experience, it’s something unbelievable. You see, yeah, y’know, you’re weightless, my stomach went up, ‘this is so weird’ – but not as weird as the covering of blue, this is what I never expected.”

“Oh, It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, the sky, and the thing, and the gradual,’ it’s all the truth, but what isn’t truth, what is unknown– until you do it, is– There’s this peril. There’s this soft blue. Look at the beauty of that colour, and it’s so THIN! And you’re through it in an instant!”

“It’s… what of… how thick is it? Is it a mile?” Shatner brought Jeff Bezos into the conversation to ponder the math.

“The atmosphere? Depends on how you measure it, maybe 50 miles,” Bezos replied.

“But you’re going 2000 miles an hour, so you’re through 50 miles, at whatever the mathematics says, you know–” Shatner turned his hands upward again.

“It’s like a beat and a beat and suddenly you’re through the blue! And you’re into black! And you’re into- y’know it’s rough, it’s mysterious, and galaxies — but what you see is BLACK. And what you see down there is light, and that’s the difference. And not to have this?” Shatner motioned to the ground.

Shatner turned to Bezos and clasped his shoulders. “You have done something. I mean, whatever those other guys are doing, what it — that isn’t — they don’t –“

“I don’t know about that. What you have given me, is the most profound experience I can imagine.” Shatner, reaching up again, was overwhelmed to the point of tears. Bezos removed his sunglasses.

“It’s odd, I’m so — filled with emotion about what just happened — I– I– just– It’s extraordinary. Extraordinary.” Shatner hugged Bezos.

“I hope I never recover from this. I hope I can– maintain what I feel now. I– I don’t want to lose it, it’s so…” Shatner sighed. “So much larger than– than me and life… It hasn’t got anything to do with the little green men and the moon and the auras, it has to do with the enormity and the quickness and the suddenness of the life and death, and the — oh my god…” Shatner and Bezos went into a brief exchange about beauty before Shatner retrieved his next thought.

“What I would love to do is communicate as much as possible, the jeopardy! The moment you see how vu– the vulnerability of everything, it’s so small! This air– which is keeping everyone alive– is thinner than your skin! It’s a- It’s a- It’s a sliver, it’s immeasurably small, when you think in terms of the universe. It’s ah, It’s n- It’s negligible, this air. Mars doesn’t have it!” Shatner grasped out for his next topic.

“And when you think of the way carbon dioxide changed to oxygen, what is it, 20% or so, that level that sustains our life- It’s so THIN! To- To- To dirty it– I mean, that’s another whole subject.”

In the early days of space tourism, when companies had only capsules on drawing boards and pockets filled mainly with hope, their marketing teams courted movie stars and musicians to buy tickets for cash and a PR boost. However, Bill Shatner was a notoriously hard ‘get’.

When asked to pay for a ticket on Virgin Galactic, Shatner famously turned it around on them, asking ‘how much will you pay ME?’ — well, by that standard, Blue Origin doing the job for free is an absolute bargain, and one that enriched humanity with the gravitas that Shatner can access as he explains what he felt to the rest of us.

Other people have travelled to space, made music, or written poetry in space. We have dispatched journalists and yes, other film actors were whizzing above his very head in a much classier orbital slot.

But Shatner is something else. In a way, we have all taken the trip with him. Or, at the very least, knowing even the first thing about the man, we will never hear the end of it.