13 October 2021 | near Van Horn, Texas. [Last updated 26 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 who is also 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 Earth as it appears in space and one of the first quality colour photographs of our planet was taken during Alan B. Shepard Jr.’s. 1961 flight. Notably, according to Blue Origin, their launch system ‘is named after Mercury astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr., the first American to go to space’. 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.
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’. He periodically flew from the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42) in 1948. Shepard was chosen from amongst the ‘Mercury 7’ astronauts to pilot the first manned Mercury (ME-3) 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 vehicle was developed from the U.S. Army’s Redstone ballistic missile, and the first stage was based upon the Jupiter-C. 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 U.S. military’s inventory. The Redstone had been actively utilised since 1953, and they 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).
To keep the Mercury 7 group current in piloting proficiency and in-flight trouble shooting practicalities, 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). Yes, the seven were engineers but they were foremost highly experienced pilots. The astronauts additionally utilised F-106s as chase aircraft during launches.
NASA also sent the men up in one or more North American F-100F Super Sabre two-seat trainers to conduct experiments during weightless (Zero G) conditions. In addition to the F-100 flights, which produced weightlessness for about a minute, they also flew parabolic curves in a Boeing C-135 Stratolifter that generated some 35 seconds of weightlessness, and in a Convair C-131 Samaritan transport which could provide Zero G for 15 seconds.
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, possessed manual control capability for several reasons. One was the astronauts’ lack of confidence in the automated guidance systems of the early 1960s. Computers at the time were primitive compared to contemporary technology, and all of the astronauts were test pilots and had routinely and promptly deal with unexpected problems that would inevitably plague the latest aircraft designs. Of note is that on page 4 of the 1963 book We Seven, which was jointly authored by the Mercury 7, the editor stated the following: ‘[I]f they were to guide a new machine through a hostile environment, they would be faced with emergencies that no one could foresee; and no matter how cleverly the system was constructed to get them there and back, there would be moments when it could fail and the men would be the masters of their own destiny.’ Malcolm Scott Carpenter, who Carpenter flew as the Mercury-Atlas 7 pilot on 24 May 1962 in the spacecraft named ‘Aurora 7’, contributed the fact that, ‘The machine is not foolproof — nothing that man has made can be really foolproof.’
U.S. Marine Corps aviator John H. Glenn, Jr., was the first American to complete orbits of the Earth. He manned Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6), which flew on 20 February 1962. John Glenn also wrote in We Seven (pages 23-24), ‘Project Mercury was a careful test of two big propositions: First, that we were on the right track as we tried to put together a system that could take man into space and bring him home safely. Second that man himself not only could undertake such a flight but that he was a necessary component of the system. The flight of Friendship 7 proved both these points. On the whole, the system worked well and did its job. Where it failed, the pilot was able to insert his own judgment and skills into the system and make it work for him. The flight would have undoubtedly been a failure if a man had not been aboard to assume control and bring the capsule back. We backed each other up, and we showed that man and machine, working together, have a future in space.’
Glenn alluded (page 25, We Seven) as to why the Mercury 7 test pilots-turned-astronauts insisted on backup manual control systems: ‘Only man himself . . . has the imagination, curiosity and flexibility to notice the smaller facts and take advantage of the unexpected things that crop up. That is why man is needed in space. It has been our mission, as Astronauts, to help put him there.’ Later in the text, on page 170, Glenn, frankly stated that, ‘One reason we were brought into the program in the first place was to give the equipment the same kind of appraisal, from the ground up, that we would apply to a new aircraft we were about to fly for the first time.’
Fellow Mercury 7 astronaut Donald K. ‘Deke’ Slayton contributed the following on page 72, ‘As a test pilot, you have to evaluate your vehicle, not situations outside of it. We would be doing essentially the same thing in Project Mercury. The man in the capsule would have to make quick decisions and evaluate systems which were entirely new.’ After his 3 October 1962 six-orbit, nine-hour Mercury-Atlas 8 flight aboard ‘Sigma 7’ astronaut Walter Marty Schirra, Jr., described (page 94, We Seven) the conflict with non-pilot design engineers: ‘We undoubtedly made some of the engineers a little sore at us sometimes with our bright ideas. But we figured that since we had to fly the capsule, it ought to be something we wanted, not just something that satisfied the slide-rule pilots. We had been test pilots long enough to know that the engineering fraternity was capable of designing an aircraft which was perfect so far as the theories involved were concerned, but which no pilot could possibly fly.’
Thus, as the online article What to Do When Algorithms Rule records, the Mercury 7 ‘. . . wanted control over the thrusters that controlled the orientation of the capsule in space. They also wanted manual control over re-entry, such as using the thrusters to set the angle of attack. They were given a manual override for the thrusters and re-entry procedure. . .’ These changes would save astronaut lives. John Glenn in fact encountered life-threatening trouble with the automatic control system during his Mercury flight. After the mission he wrote (page 326, We Seven) the following: ‘I was able to intercede and take over when the control system acted up. It is probable that the capsule would never have completed three orbits or might not have returned to earth at all if a man had not been aboard to exercise human judgment and control over the spacecraft machine.’
In test flying things could and did occasionally go very awry. These elite aviators commonly spoke of ‘snakes in the cockpit’ and mythological ‘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 (portrayed by 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 out of control. Only astronaut Neil Armstrong’s calmness and piloting skills saved the duo from death. 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, and human ingenuity and adaptability were crucial to a successful resolution.
Six decades later after Shepard reached space, Blue Origin created the company’s ‘New Shepard rocket and spaceflight system’ using the latest in electronic computer design and manufacturing. 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, Blue Engines are ‘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.
This morning William Shatner led his three crewmates up the gantry steps in company with Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos. In minutes they would actually be where the fictional Enterprise was at the beginning of the ‘Star Trek’ television series episode #21, titled’Tomorrow Is Yesterday’. Aficionados will recall that William Shatner had already been in fictional low Earth orbit in the classic installment, which aired on 26 January 1967. The story has the crew of USS Enterprise, with Captain Kirk commanding, 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 limp upward into low Earth orbit, a region William Shatner is now intimately familiar with as a consequence of his suborbital flight.
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. Shatner 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.”
But the labours and stresses of the space flight obviously took a toll on William Shatner. After his return to Earth, he confessed, “Just getting up the bloody gantry was a job.”
Blue Origin’s latest endeavour, named ‘New Glenn‘, is a very large, orbital reusable launch vehicle, which is named after John H. Glenn, Jr. According to the company it will be ‘a single configuration heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of carrying people and payloads routinely to Earth orbit and beyond. Featuring a reusable first stage built for 25 missions, New Glenn will build a road to space.’
In the darkness prior to Alan Shepard’s launch some 60 years ago, a reporter spoke to a female observer (one of the ‘bird watchers’ as they were termed) who had come out to one of the beaches around Cape Canaveral used by the public to witness NASA rockets arise. She said (page 194, We Seven) , as she stared at the searchlight-illuminated booster and capsule Friendship 7 with Shepard ensconced inside, “There’ll come a time when space travel will be as common as jet planes are today.” This morning Blue Origin took another step, with the successful completion of William Shatner’s flight, that will soon make the woman’s prescience observation of 1961 soon come to fruition.
Meanwhile, William 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
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A New Analysis May Have Just Solved A Decades-Old Mystery Of The Space Race
‘As the Stomach Turns’ on the KC-135
Blue Origin announces next customers to fly on New Shepard’s upcoming human flight on October 12
Blue Origin facilities
Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker
Boeing Model 717 / KC-135 Stratotanker / C-135 Stratolifter
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Canadian Forces Base Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan
Convair C-131 Samaritan
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Leonard Nimoy (Spock) visits Vulcan, Alta., today
Liftoff of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mission
Lockheed F-104C Starfighter
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Mercury Redstone 4
Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle
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Nimoy beams ‘home’ to Vulcan, Alberta
North American F-100F Super Sabre
North American F-100 Super Sabre
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Scott Carpenter, 1925-2013
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Spinning Out of Control: Gemini VIII’s Near-Disaster
The Australian engineer joining William Shatner on board Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space flight
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USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42)
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William Shatner and Blue Origin’s Audrey Powers to fly on New Shepard’s 18th mission
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