13 October 2021 | near Van Horn, Texas. [Updated 14 October 2021] William Shatner was certainly not the first Canadian in space, but he has now become the most famous Canadian and the oldest human (age 90) to traverse the Kármán line and earn the coveted title of ‘astronaut’. And who is more deserving of this designation than the legendary ‘Captain Kirk’ of 1960s Star Trek television fame and subsequently ‘Admiral Kirk’ of Star Trek films?
The only scenario that could have topped Shatner’s flight today was if his former co-star Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek‘s iconic ‘Commander Spock’) had lived to accompany him on the ‘New Shepard NS-18’ voyage, a scenario which would have certainly excited the residents of Vulcan, Alberta, Canada. (Nimoy led a parade in Vulcan on 23 April 2010 that celebrated the town’s status as ‘official Star Trek capital of Canada.’)
In addition to actor William Shatner, the other NS-18 crewmembers were Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s Vice President of Mission & Flight Operations, Dr. Chris Boshuizen, an Australian who today became the third Australian to venture into space and a former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) engineer and co-founder of Planet Labs, and Glen de Vries, Vice-Chair, Life Sciences & Healthcare, Dassault Systèmes and the co-founder of Medidata.
The moniker ‘Blue Origin’ refers to the blue Earth and one of the first quality colour photographs of our planet home was taken during Alan B. Shepard Jr.’s 1961 flight. Notably, according to Blue Origin, the Blue Origin launch system ‘is named after Mercury astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr., the first American to go to space’ and the firm says ‘New Shepard is our reusable suborbital rocket system designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán line – the internationally recognized boundary of space.’ The Kármán line (or von Karman line) is a nebulous demarcation between the Earth’s atmosphere and what we commonly refer to as outer space. The Fédération aéronautique internationale (FAI) designates the Kármán line as the beginning of outer space, which according to the organization begins at 100 kilometres (54 nautical miles, 62 miles or 330,000 feet) above mean sea level.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard is an automated spacecraft system. In contrast, in the early 1960s the Mercury 7 astronauts fought engineers and NASA bureaucracy to retain manual flight capability, rather than rely upon ground-controlled guidance as was the case in the chimpanzee launch on Mercury Redstone ME-2.
Manned Mercury flights, including Alan Shepard’s, retained manual control capability at the astronauts’ insistence for several reasons. One was the spacemen’s practical lack of confidence in the guidance systems and ground control operations of the early 1960s. Computers at the time were primitive compared to contemporary technology, and all of the Mercury 7 team were pilots. In fact, some were test pilots and had to promptly deal with unexpected problems that would frequently plague new designs.
To keep the Mercury 7 group current in piloting proficiency, NASA obtained supersonic interceptors in the form of Convair F-102 Delta Daggers (credited with a maximum speed of Mach 1.25) and swifter Convair F-106 Delta Darts (capable of attaining a top speed of Mach 2.3) for the purpose.
In test flying things could and did occasionally go very awry. These elite aviators commonly spoke of ‘snakes in the cockpit’ and ‘gremlins’ determined to kill pilots. In fact, William Shatner starred in an episode of the television series The Twilight Zone titled ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ which aired on 11 October 1963. The story features a passenger (William Shatner) on a commercial airline flight who notices a hideous creature (a ‘gremlin’) wandering about nefariously on the wing of the airliner while it is airborne.
Dreaded gremlins did indeed eventually strike during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes. At the end of Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom’s Mercury Redstone 4 mission capsule (‘Liberty Belle 7’) the hatch mysteriously blew off, causing the near drowning of Grissom and the loss, until its 1999 recovery, of the spacecraft. Later, during Gemini VIII, the two-man crew was nearly lost when their docked spacecraft began to tumble. Only astronaut Neil Armstrong’s piloting skills saved the duo. Subsequently, Apollo 13 was nearly lost in space when an explosion within the attached Service Module caused catastrophic damage and crippled the spacecraft. Once again, manual astronaut piloting, human ingenuity and adaptability were crucial to a successful resolution.
Alan Shepard, Jr., was a U.S. Navy fighter piloted who commenced his naval aviation career by flying the graceful and effective Vought F4U Corsair as a member of U.S. Navy fighter Squadron ‘VF-42’ from the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42) in 1948. He was chosen from amongst the Mercury 7 astronauts to pilot the first manned Mercury (ME3) launch, thereby becoming the first American to fly in space on 5 May 1961. The launch vehicle lifted from Complex 5 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
A Mercury Redstone booster had been chosen. The Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle was developed from the U.S. Army’s Redstone ballistic missile, and the first stage was based upon the Jupiter-C launch vehicle. NASA took the decision to adopt the U.S. Army’s liquid-fueled Redstone ballistic missile for its sub-orbital flights because the booster was a known quantity, being the oldest in the US military’s inventory. The Redstone had been actively utilised since 1953, and had completed many successful flights. The selection was a confidence builder in an era of newly-designed launch booster failures.
However, the standard U.S. Army Redstone lacked sufficient thrust to propel the manned Mercury capsule into a suborbital apogee. It was recognised that adding the first stage of the Jupiter-C booster, a modified Redstone with extended propellant tanks, would make it possible to carry enough fuel to reach the necessary flight profile. Thus, this concept was utilised as the starting point for the Mercury-Redstone modified design. The engineers of the Mercury-Redstone design team chose the Rocketdyne A-7 engine as the powerplant, which was being used the latest military Redstone version. Two U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency propulsion experts, Hans Paul and William Davidson, were tasked with completing the modifications of the A-7 for manned Mercury flights. For astronaut safety considerations, the propellant chosen was the standard ethyl alcohol propellant. Meanwhile,the number ‘7’ was incorporated into the name of all the manned Mercury spacecraft to honour this first select group of NASA astronauts.
Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7’s flight duration was slightly in excess of 15 minutes. The craft attained an altitude of 187.5 kilometres or 101.2 nautical miles (116.5 statute miles,) and travelled downrange 487.3 kilometres or 263.1 nautical miles (302.8 statute miles).
Six decades later, Blue Origin created the company’s ‘New Shepard rocket and spaceflight system’ using the latest in electronic computer design and manufacturing, rather than ‘slide rule’ mechanical analog computer calculation methods often employed by the Mercury Redstone designers. Named after Mercury astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., New Shepard is Blue Origin’s reusable and ‘fully autonomous’ suborbital rocket system designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán line. On 20 July 2021 the intrepid firm boosted its initial human crew skyward. The flight lasted some 10 minutes, and the relatively roomy crew capsule easily climbed past the Line.
Built for multiple uses, the family of Blue Engines is ‘designed to power the next generation of rockets for commercial, civil, national security [defence] and human spaceflight.’ All Blue Engines and propulsion subsystems are thoroughly tested and qualified at the Blue Origin test centre not far from Van Horn, Texas.
The BE-3, which powered NS-18, is reportedly ‘the first new liquid hydrogen-fueled rocket engine to be developed for production in America in over a decade.’ At full throttle, BE-3PM generates more than a million horsepower.
Devotees of the television series will recall that William Shatner had already been in fictional low Earth orbit in the classic Star Trek episode (#21) ‘Tomorrow is Yesterday’, which aired on 26 January 1967. USS Enterprise, with Captain Kirk commanding, found itself in the upper atmosphere of Earth and being actively tracked by a Mach 2.0-capable U.S. Air Force Lockheed F-104 Starfighter interceptor armed with air-to-air missiles. After dealing with the Starfighter threat, the Enterprise was able to eventually limp upward into low Earth orbit.
This morning William Shatner led his three crewmates up the tower in company with Blue Origin founder with Jeff Bezos. In minutes they would actually be where the fictional Enterprise was at the beginning of ‘Tomorrow Is Yesterday’. Later Shatner confessed, “Just getting up the bloody gantry was a job.”
Prior to liftoff, in a tradition going back to back to John Glenn‘s Mercury Atlas 6 ‘Friendship 7’ 20 February 1962 flight, several individuals wished the soon-to-be-astronauts “Godspeed.” The mission proceeded flawlessly. No interceptors or gremlins were reportedly encountered, and millions around the world watched the event live via the Internet.
The flight profile of NS-18 was as follows: the main booster separated shortly before reaching the Kármán line, the capsule continued to ascent above Kármán line into space, the booster landed under its own power on the pad, and the capsule descended under parachutes to a safe landing on Texas soil. All proceeded according to plan.
Back on terra firma, William Shatner was ecstatic. He had visited space. He made statements such as, “It was unbelievable.” “It was so moving.” Shatner added, “I am so filled with emotion,” and “I am overwhelmed.” To him “the deep black of space above represented death and the blue atmosphere of Earth below meant life.”
Wiliam Shatner is now sporting astronaut wings. Yet another frontier has been surpassed in a life that has seen so many achievements and accolades. Shatner has again gone where few men and women have before. He continues to live long and prosper.
The author (John T. Stemple) is an Aerospace Education Member (AEM) of the Civil Air Patrol (the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary). Note: Military Aviation Chronicles thank Blue Origin for granting us permission to incorporate images from the company’s website.
‘Star Trek’s’ William Shatner talks space trip aboard Bezos’ Blue Origin
Freedom 7 – Mercury-Redstone 3 (1961) – NASA Documentary
NASA: Freedom 7
Early days of the space age – Rocket Failures
The Right Stuff. Warner Bros. Home Video. 1983.
Sources and Suggested Readings
A New Analysis May Have Just Solved A Decades-Old Mystery Of The Space Race
Blue Origin announces next customers to fly on New Shepard’s upcoming human flight on October 12
Blue Origin facilities
Burgess, Colin. Liberty Bell 7: The Suborbital Mercury Flight of Virgil I. Grissom. 2014 Edition. Springer Praxis Books.
Canadian Forces Base Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan
Convair F-102A Delta Dagger
Convair F-102 Delta Dagger
Convair F-106 Delta Dart
French, Francis, Colin Burgess and Paul Haney. Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965 Outward Odyssey: A People’s History of Space, 2009.
Gemini’s First Docking Turns to Wild Ride in Orbit
‘Godspeed, John Glenn’
In the Beginning: Project Mercury
Leonard Nimoy (Spock) visits Vulcan, Alta., today
Liftoff of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mission
Lockheed F-104C Starfighter
Mercury Redstone 4
Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
Nimoy beams ‘home’ to Vulcan, Alberta
Space Myths Busted: Gus Grissom Didn’t Blow The Hatch on Liberty Bell 7
Spinning Out of Control: Gemini VIII’s Near-Disaster
The Australian engineer joining William Shatner on board Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space flight
The Sinking of Liberty Bell 7: Gus Grissom’s Near-Fatal Mission
This Week in NASA History: Alan Shepard Becomes First American in Space – May 5, 1961
Tomorrow Is Yesterday
Tomorrow is Yesterday [TOS]
USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42)
U.S. Space Force logo: More about the ‘delta’ symbol
View of the Earth From the Freedom 7 Mercury Capsule
Vought F4U Corsair
We Seven: By the Astronauts Themselves. Illustrated edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 12 January 2010.
Who Was Alan Shepard?
William Shatner and Blue Origin’s Audrey Powers to fly on New Shepard’s 18th mission
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Second Edition, Revised. New York: Picador, 4 March 2008.