I am not a pessimist by nature, but as an old newspaper guy, I am conditioned to expect bad outcomes. So, when the nonagenarian actor William Shatner was stuffed into a blue jumpsuit and strapped on top of a rocket for the purpose of a brief and practically meaningless 50-mile journey into outer space, I thought something could go wrong. Very wrong.
Fortunately, nothing did.
But surely the gods of fate, the great levelers of hubris, were tempted to intervene.
And what better target of Murphy’s Law could there be than Jeff Bezos, the billionaire wizard of online shopping who brazenly stepped over the line of parody by enlisting Captain Kirk of Star Trek—perhaps the greatest fake astronaut of all time — to advance the dream of space travel for anyone able to afford a $500,000 ticket. It was a cute stunt and maybe executed without cynicism. But since more than a few space travelers have died over the decades, I couldn’t help but wonder if Bezos was deliberately minimizing the risks involved. After all, in the make-believe universe of Vulcans, Tribbles, and Klingons, Shatner (alias Kirk) is an indestructible hero.
An irrepressible ham, Shatner is a living punchline — and it was amusing to watch his suborbital journey played out in a rocket ship that looked, well, like a novelty sex toy from Romantic Depot. Beam me up, Scotty!
There seemingly was nothing real about this. It was a comic-book adventure or something out of an Austin Powers movie, with Bezos cast as the follicly challenged Dr. Evil. There was no risk, no danger. Nothing could go wrong… right?
It turned out that Shatner himself wasn’t so sure. Photos of him in the Blue Origin capsule reveal the grim visage of a man who may have felt more like a NASA chimp than the confident commander of the Starship Enterprise. Indeed, four days before liftoff, he admitted to an audience that he was scared — terrified even. “I know!” he said. “I’m Captain bloody Kirk!”
Imagine if Shatner had been lost in space. Commercial space tourism would’ve been crippled indefinitely. At the very least, we’d witness a significant drop-off in “guest star astronauts,” i.e., publicity-starved celebrities lining up for their 11 minutes of weightlessness.
Are we tempting fate?
When schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe died in the Challenger disaster, on January 28, 1986, New York Times columnist Russell Baker blamed NASA and the news media for convincing the public that the shuttle was safe for civilians. “Most of us probably assumed it meant the bugs had been ironed out of the rocket travel,” he wrote. “Some of us probably thought, ‘Hey, in a few years I might get to ride one of these things myself.”
Imagine if Shatner had been lost in space. Commercial space tourism would’ve been crippled indefinitely.
We were delusional, Baker said. Nobody worried that something could go wrong.
Jon Fiorella, a science teacher at Bedford’s Fox Lane High School, was one of 10,462 educators nationwide who received an application for the contest that McAuliffe ultimately won. The accident stunned him. “I remember my mouth dropped open,” he recently recalled. “What else can you say about it? It wasn’t supposed to happen.”
The tragedy traumatized the country, raising serious questions about safety — especially for amateur space explorers. Overnight, exotic-travel companies that had been building waiting lists for luxury trips to the moon canceled future bookings and went back to selling cruises to Alaska.
Even NASA astronaut Rick Hauck, a veteran of three shuttle flights, had second thoughts. He once calculated the fatality risk to be at about four percent. Quoted in the publication The Space Review in 2003, he said, “Would I have flown had I known there was a four percent chance of death? No, I don’t think I would’ve flown.”
Of course, exploration is in the American DNA. We’re risk-takers, which is okay if we understand that life isn’t a staged reality-TV show and that strapping yourself to a rocket fueled by thousands of gallons of a liquid hydrogen-oxygen cocktail is literally playing with fire.
The students at Fox Lane seemed to grasp that decades ago. Shortly after the Challenger disaster, a school newspaper survey of 601 students showed that an overwhelming majority — 563 — felt that the shuttle program should continue, and more than half said they would be interested in someday taking a ride in space. A student editor concluded: “The students accepted the disaster as the price of progress.”
As for Fiorella, well, he’s a grandfather now and no longer has a burning desire to catch a ride on a rocket.
“I think my wife would break my leg!” he says.
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org