William Shatner has not lost his sense of adventure, wonder, or humor. But he has a serious message. The actor who originated the role of Captain Kirk on Star Trek may not have gone where no man has gone before, but he has touched the sky. His view from Blue Origin’s NS-18 suborbital flight that launched and landed Oct. 13 opened his eyes to a world he thought he knew, but he now worries about its fragility.
Jeff Bezos’ $5.5 billion project which launched the New Shepard capsule flight may well be the most money ever paid for a documentary trailer. Amazon Prime’s upcoming one-hour special Shatner in Space chronicles the 11-minute mission where the iconic science fiction actor made science fact history. Upon landing, the 90-year-old now true-life astronaut described the physical experiences he shared with Audrey Powers, Chris Boshuizen, and Glen de Vries. Their bodies experienced floating in zero gravity, and the pressure of five times the force of Earth’s gravity. “Suddenly, your body is expanding,” he told The Today Show. “Secondly, you’re floating.”
But Shatner didn’t “want to turn somersaults.” He wanted to look out the window. What he saw made him think about the sixth extinction, theorized to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact on the dinosaurs. Shatner has been consistent in this warning for the past few years: if Earth sees mankind as a pestilence, it will rid itself of us.
In his career on-screen, Shatner traveled to The Twilight Zone, brought his “Big Giant Head” to 3rd Rock from the Sun, and his unbridled curiosity to The UnXplained. He loves to stretch the outer limits. Musically, he’s probably best known as “The Rocket Man,” and completed the record he was recording when he last spoke with us, simply called Bill, but also put out a sonic call to Ponder the Mystery.
Shatner spoke with Den of Geek about what lies above and beyond, as well as the fragility, resilience, and insignificance of Earth.
Den of Geek: I have to tell you, on the morning of the launch, my mom called to ask if I was watching, and we were both very worried about you.
William Shatner: Yeah, I think you had every reason to worry. I was worried about me.
Did you ever think of backing out?
You know? I did, and social forces kept me in line. I kept thinking, “What would the headline look like, ‘Captain Kirk is afraid to go to space?’” That’s a monumental joke.
You’re now historically the oldest person to fly in space.
Isn’t that something to be noted for.
Would you recommend it to anyone who tries to break this record?
Yes, I think they should. And then I’ll get out from under being known as the “oldest man that’s ever been.” I hate that. That’s terrible.
Was it at all rejuvenating?
Yes, it is. It is really rejuvenating in that it compels you to worry about the future. Whereas when you get to a certain age – I remember hearing an author say, “Well, I’m not worried about that, I’m out of here soon.” That phrase has rung in my mind for a long time. I know I don’t want to utter it. “I’m not worried about rising seas, because I’m out of here.” I’m worried about rising seas, and rejuvenating my worry, because of my family.
Everyone wants to know what it feels like up there. But you had your eyes glued to that window. So, I’m more interested in what you saw when you broke through what you called the “tiny blue skin” that showed how fragile the Earth is.
I saw with my own eyes, rather than being told “it’s a little tiny blue planet.” I saw with my own eyes. In my lifetime, I have crossed the Earth. I’ve flown to Dubai. I got lost in the weather in Australia. I’ve explored the Far East. I’ve gone all over Europe. I’ve been to China. I’ve been around the world often. Especially in the United States, in motorcycles, trucks. I thumbed, when I was a kid, across the United States. I’ve seen how endless the roads are. The plane flights that take twelve hours, and you’re like “God, it’s still going,” and still takes forever.
And then I saw how tiny. I wasn’t told “that little blue orb,” I saw the curvature of the earth. Now, I don’t know how much of a section I saw. But it was measurable. It was finite. I went from there to there, and I saw the curvature of the earth, and if you took how many segments it would take to go around, I saw: It was finite.
I saw how small the earth is. It’s a particle of sand in an endless desert. And we are tiny. I mean, how do you measure what we are, in terms of the earth, how smaller we are compared? So, this insignificant planet, around this insignificant star, with these little tiny dots that are so small on this earth, they’re immeasurable. We are insignificant.
The earth is insignificant, the sun is insignificant, and we human beings, on the earth, are insignificant, with one difference. And this is what I came back with: That we are observers of that insignificance. We are a party to the recognition of the majesty of space and the insignificance of us. But it’s all one whole and it’s all bound up in the magic of the universe. It’s the magic of being, I guess, is a better way of putting it.
Star Trek inspired technology, and a lot of newer technologies appear to be more environmentally friendly. Do you think it takes the arts to move science?
Science is an art. Well, it is, when you think about the great scientists. I never realized this until I talked to some of them. I interviewed Stephen Hawking, probably the last interview, because he died not too long thereafter. He supposed it made sense to have a black hole. It just made sense. So many other scientists, out of their imagination, have a theory, and find facts to supplement that theory. If they have enough facts, and it meets the critique of fellow scientists, it becomes a fact.
Only recently have we observed the black holes because we’ve got telescopes big enough to say, “oh, that’s what he was talking about.” But when he started this idea about black holes, it was totally theory. It was a piece of art that sprang from his imagination. As Einstein, it sprang from his imagination. As a young man lying in bed thinking, “well, if I was on a train tonight and this and this and, oh my god, that’s more complex than I thought.” And he begins to now look at it mathematically. And mathematics becomes his art form.
So, Arts and Science walk hand in hand. Music is mathematics. When you play your piano, you’re doing mathematics. The harmonies are mathematics. What does that tell you about the interconnectedness of the universe? You’re playing music on a harpsichord that came from a harp that came from a plucked instrument. The progression of that piano is the progression of art. Oh, and you have a synthesizer.
I also have this [holds up a cover of The Transformed Man].
Oh, get Bill, my new album. You’ll love it.
As an actor who studies sense memory, do you wish you could have had this experience to draw on when you were doing space theater?
I think everything happens in its time. I think the entanglement, to use that word scientifically, the entanglement of everything means that everything happens within its time. And it was time for me. My ability to absorb and comment on the experience. I could only have done that in this time.
And, conversely, have all the times you imagined yourself going into warp drive ever come close to imagining what it actually felt like?
Well, warp drive is a theory. Apparently, according to some of the scientists that I’ve talked to, it’s feasible if you use all the energy of something: all the energy involved in the Milky Way or the Galaxy. If you had enough energy, you could warp time. The other theory, of course, is that instead of going out into time, you bring time and space into you. That it would be like a map, you curl up and bring it to you.
That’s an alternate theory. But you know? I have trouble with those alternate reality theories. I think there is reality. I think that that galaxy that we see 13 point 8 billion years away was real. What it’s like now, of course, 13 point 8 billion years later, we don’t know. But I think it’s real. I don’t think we’re figments of some imagination. And that they will wake up from their dream and we’ll all disappear. I think it’s real.
What it is, of course, nobody knows. But I think reality is there. It’s measurable. And maybe our measuring instruments are also a phenomenon, but somehow it doesn’t make sense to me that everything is unreal. I don’t know whether the Buddhists actually think that. But it’s a theory that you and I have heard: that we’re a dream. And I just don’t think that that is so.
When you were doing Star Trek, it was during the space race, and you captured the thrill of the unknown. But there were a lot of people who thought that money would have been better spent socially. Now a lot of people are saying the same thing about billionaire space missions. Do you see a way to reconcile this?
Yes, absolutely. Yes, and that is this: Yuri Gargarin, he said, when he got up there, “My God. It’s blue.” That was the first observation. It’s blue. It’s a blue planet. We didn’t know that. That was, what? 75 years ago? Somewhere around that time, but I mean a minuscule matter of time. In our lifetime, we heard Yuri Gagarin say “It’s blue.” We heard Columbus say “there’s an island” in that time. We’ve done all these physical things: The moon, Mars, the thing. There’s a preparation going on.
There’s a slow evolution of preparation. Not to go to Mars, but to get into space and put polluting industries into space, to have places to live in space. So that you come down, without all the polluting industries and heavy things, and take an electric bike ride around a park, and breathe clear air and drink clean water. Because the promise is, all those polluting industries can be moved. The technology is there right now. And the technology is there right now only as a result of these little explorations, starting when Yuri Gagarin said “it’s blue.”
I don’t know if you ever watched the show Barney Miller, but in one episode they discuss the plan to shoot nuclear waste in space.
We can do that. Right.
I have to ask the same question as Wojo: What if space doesn’t want it?
We’re not dumping it. Why not shoot it into the sun?
When you broke through the tiny skin around the earth, did it feel like going through a cloud or did it feel like a barrier?
Through a cloud. There was no physical sensation. We had come out of the seats just before that. There was no physical sensation. Somewhere, seconds before, somebody said, “We’re weightless.” And we hit that five-point harness, got out, and floated. And I made for the window immediately and then looked behind me, and saw the wake of the spaceship making it through the blue air.
I wonder whether space tourism might do damage to the layer.
The impression I got, it was like a submarine and water. I don’t think the submarine hurts the water. But we know that airplanes are disturbing the water vapor, and the ozone layers are all threatened by mankind’s activities. Apparently, the ozone layer heals itself after a few years. The earth can heal itself if we disappeared tomorrow.
I point to Chesapeake Bay. About 25 years ago, you couldn’t eat anything out of Chesapeake Bay. It was polluted and everything was poisonous. Then they stop polluting it. The government put up barriers to stop the pollution. And now you can eat the clams and stuff like that from Chesapeake Bay. In just 20 years. That’s how quickly the Earth can heal itself. That’s how quickly nature just takes the wound and covers it.
Like our own wounds in our body, our body heals. I mean, the magic of it, the body is sending little things to heal the wound. How does it know how to do that? Does that make me go “oh my god, that’s unbelievable. I got a little rash and then my body’s trying to heal it,” or I cut myself and it seals itself. I broke my leg. My muscles tightened up and splinted by themselves. What an incredible thing.
Now that you’ve reached space, what is your next frontier?
Is there something that you can teach us about death?
No. I’m trying to, I’m trying to find it. When I find it, I’ll say “believe.”
Shatner in Space premieres on Amazon Prime Video on Wednesday, Dec. 15.