Should all go according to plan, Shatner, 90, will become the oldest person to travel in space, even if it’s just for a few minutes. The current record belongs to 82-year-old Wally Funk, who set the mark earlier this year during the same flight that took Jeff Bezos to space. That said, NASA astronaut John Glenn flew to space aboard the Space Shuttle at the age of 77, which still makes him the oldest astronaut according to the FAA’s definition of the term (tl;dr: to be an astronaut you actually have to do something while in space, aside from gawking at the view).
After it was announced that Shatner was joining the NS-18 flight, the actor admitted to being terrified. Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Shatner said he’s now feeling “comfortable, but also a bit uncomfortable.” Age, he said, won’t be a factor, aside from having to get in and out the seats both before and after launch.
“So unless you’re really supple, getting in and out of the seats…when we’re in gravity, is a chore,” Shatner said. “But of course it’s designed [for us] to float out of the seat, in weightlessness.” Shatner is most looking forward to being in weightlessness, as everything after that “should be all right.” To which he added: “And we’ll have that moment of inspiration, which I feel will be there when we’re looking into the vastness of the universe.”
Following the few minutes of weightlessness, Shatner and his crewmates will return to their seats and buckle up in preparation for re-entry. The capsule will descend with parachute assist and make a soft landing in the desert. The whole thing will last no longer than around 15 minutes.
NS-18 is poised to be just the second crewed flight of New Shephard. On July 20, Blue Origin successfully sent company founder Jeff Bezos, along with three others, to beyond the Kármán line—the threshold of space according to the International Aeronautical Federation. Flying at a maximum altitude of around 66 miles (106 km), Shatner will be joined by Chris Boshuizen, a former NASA engineer and co-founder of Planet Labs, Glen de Vries, the vice-chair of life sciences and health care at French software company Dassault Systèmes, and Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s vice president of mission and flight operations and a former flight controller with NASA.
For Bezos, the Shatner flight is serving as a timely distraction. Blue Origin was recently accused of fostering sexism at the workplace and pushing employees to their limits. Claims that the company has been favoring rapid deployment over safety concerns have now led to an FAA investigation. Blue Origin is also embroiled in a legal battle with NASA over a lunar lander contract that the company believes was unfairly awarded to SpaceX.
“At 100,000 feet you have a spectacular panoramic view of Earth’s surface. With this wide-angle view, you will clearly see the curvature of Earth and the ‘thin blue line’ of Earth’s atmosphere,” according to the company FAQ. “Also, because you will be higher than the thickest parts of the atmosphere, you will be enveloped in the darkness of space. Your horizon will stretch into the distance more than 1,000 miles in every direction. “
A generally agreed-upon boundary for space is the Kármán Line, which is located 62 miles (100 km) above sea level. World View’s balloon will go nowhere near space, but that’s not preventing the company from fitting its offering into the space tourism sector. That said, World View isn’t really trying to compete with the bona fide space tourism ventures, namely Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX. It would be more accurate to say that, to a certain extent, World View is trying to step on their toes.
For one, World View plans to charge $50,000 per person, a cost that “is noticeably lower than any other civilian space tourism flight available today,” according to the company. Again, not space, but okay. That’s still a lot of money, but it pales in comparison to the expected $25 million ticket price for a ride aboard SpaceX’s CrewDragon. At auction, Blue Origin sold a seat for $28 million, while Virgin Galactic plans to charge $450,000. In its statement, World View said it would provide flexible financing options for its customers, and it’s currently accepting $500 deposits. The $50,000 price tag is akin to buying a very expensive car, and a lot of people might find this experience to be worth it.
Time is another advantage, as flights to the stratosphere will last six to 12 hours. This will allow the eight passengers and two crew members to hang out, enjoy the view, and even partake in libations—without the thrill zero gravity, however. The capsule will include a bathroom, which is good news for those hoping to join the very exclusive 19-mile-high club.
World View wants to initially launch its balloons from the Grand Canyon, but the company has ambitions to include other stunning departure points, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Serengeti in Kenya, the Amazon in Brazil, the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, and the Great Wall of China in Mongolia. Those are great, but an ascent with a view of the Aurora Borealis in Norway is, in my estimation, the most spectacular of the planned offerings.
Another advantage has to do with physical accessibility. A violent, high-acceleration rocket launch would be replaced by a gentle lift to the stratosphere and a soft landing on the ground. Services animals will also be permitted to join the flight.
The company says it has many safety measures in place:
From the design of the spaceflight capsule to the helium-filled zero-pressure balloon flight system and the patented parafoil landing system, safety at every step is our primary objective. We have also designed several redundant safety measures if any of the primary safety measures malfunction during flight. For instance, if the parafoil system fails during landing, we also have a backup parachute system that would be deployed to gently slow and land the capsule. […]
For many years, World View flights have used high-altitude zero-pressure balloons, which means that the pressure inside the balloon is equal to the pressure outside the balloon. In the event of a puncture, leak or hole, the balloon would not “pop” and cause a sudden freefall. Instead, the outcome would be very benign: helium would slowly leak out of the balloon and the balloon and capsule would eventually start to slowly lose altitude. Even if there was a large tear in the balloon, it would take several hours for the balloon to slowly float to the ground. Additionally, because World View balloons are filled with helium, a safe, non-flammable gas, we eliminate the risk of explosion.
The company is still finalizing its design, and it needs to obtain a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Speaking to SpaceNews, Ryan Hartman, chief executive of World View, said the company would ideally like to perform 100 launches a year, but that’ll depend on the launch points and local weather conditions. The inaugural flight could happen in 2024, which has already been chartered by the not-for-profit group Space For Humanity.
All this said, World View may have some company up there in the stratosphere. Space Perspective, a company owned by Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum—both co-founders of World View—is currently working on a similar offering, though with a price tag closer to $125,000 per passenger.
The article alleged that the pilots ignored warning lights during the ascent and that VSS Unity risked a landing at an undesignated runway. What’s more, the article reported that the spaceplane flew outside of its federally mandated airspace for nearly two minutes, a claim the FAA later affirmed. Sources told Nicholas Schmidle, the author of the New Yorker piece, that the safest course of action would’ve been to abort the mission, but instead, the pilots flew at full throttle for the required one full minute, allowing Unity to reach an altitude of 53 miles (86 km) above sea level, which qualifies as space. The spaceplane glided back to its designated runway and successfully landed at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Had the pilots aborted the flight, however, Branson would not have become the first billionaire to reach space (Jeff Bezos of Blue origin achieved the same feat just a few weeks later).
The FAA launched a formal investigation on August 11, during which time Virgin Galactic’s spaceplanes were grounded. Results of the probe showed that Unity “deviated from its assigned airspace on its descent from space,” and that Virgin Galactic “failed to communicate the deviation to the FAA as required,” according to the regulator. Virgin Galactic was subsequently given a list of corrective actions, which it has apparently completed to the FAA’s satisfaction.
Virgin Galactic offered more detail in a statement yesterday. The corrective actions included “updated calculations” to expand protected airspace during future flights, designating a larger flight area to make sure Virgin Galactic “has ample protected airspace for a variety of possible flight trajectories during spaceflight missions,” along with steps to “ensure real-time mission notifications to FAA Air Traffic Control.”
“We appreciate the FAA’s thorough review of this inquiry,” Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic CEO, said in the statement. “Our test flight program is specifically designed to continually improve our processes and procedures.” To which he added: “The updates to our airspace and real-time mission notification protocols will strengthen our preparations as we move closer to the commercial launch of our spaceflight experience.”
Colglazier said Virgin Galactic is committed to safety at every level, but the company, with its history of tragedy and near-misses, PR fakery, and claims of a deteriorating safety culture, would suggest otherwise. This latest incident, I’m afraid to say, may not be the last for this aspiring space tourism venture.
Virgin Galactic’s next flight to suborbital space, designated the Unity 23 mission, was supposed to happen in early or mid-October, and we now await an official launch date. As we learned in August, however, this will be the last flight before the company performs inspections and tests of all its vehicles. Commercial flights of SpaceShipTwo are not expected until 2022.
One of the downsides of the California initiative process is that it allows illegal laws to be enacted. And since corporations have First Amendment rights when “talking” about their initiative, the voters can be fed outright lies and falsehoods in order to fool them into voting for something illegal and against the interests of non-corporations (people).