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‘Risk is our business!” So declared William Shatner in the 1968 Star Trek episode Return to Tomorrow. His character, Cpt James T Kirk, in a speech worthy of his real-life inspiration President John F Kennedy, led his crew through an imaginary potted history of human space exploration: first the moon, then Mars – then on to “the nearest star”.
In a confident gamble on the part of Star Trek’s writers, Kirk explicitly praised the Apollo space program for putting a man on the moon, something that would not happen in reality until the following year. Star Trek, a show forged in the crucible of the cold war space race – despite featuring a Russian navigator on the bridge of the Enterprise – was nailing its colours to the mast, tying its fictional future to the contemporary American space program.
Half a century later, Shatner is on his way to space for real, making him the first Star Trek captain to boldly go where only a few hundred people have been before. His voyage today (unless it’s postponed again due to weather conditions) comes courtesy not of Nasa – let alone Star Trek’s utopian, post-capitalist Federation – but thanks to Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’s commercial space flight company, Blue Origin.
Bezos, a longtime Star Trek fan (he had a cameo, under heavy prosthetic makeup, in the 2016 movie Star Trek Beyond) is evidently committed to providing access to the heavens to those who seem as if they have every right to experience them. Wally Funk, the 82-year-old veteran of Nasa’s Mercury 13 program, who was unceremoniously grounded because of her gender in 1962, left Earth earlier this year. Now Shatner, an energetic 90-year-old whose eccentric charm is sometimes hard to distinguish from that of his space-faring alter ego, is following in her footsteps, ready to snatch her briefly held title as the oldest human in space.
It is just the latest chapter in a long, complicated and symbiotic relationship between Star Trek and real-world space exploration. By the time the first space shuttle was ready to be unveiled in 1976, President Ford had received tens of thousands of letters from Trekkers begging him to christen it the Enterprise. He obliged, inviting the entire Star Trek cast to the grand ceremony – Shatner apparently had a prior engagement – in which the new vessel emerged from its hanger to the tune of Alexander Courage’s soaring Star Trek theme, played with gusto by an air force band.
The following year, after Uhura actor Nichelle Nichols gave a moving speech criticising the lack of diversity among Nasa astronauts – “Where are my people?” she demanded – the space agency put her on the payroll, with a mission to help recruit a new shuttle cohort as diverse as the crew of the Enterprise.
Nichols spent four months touring the country on a gruelling schedule of public engagements, as well as undergoing astronaut training. (Asked how she had landed the shuttle safely on a tricky computer simulation, she shrugged and explained that Uhura must have done it for her.) By the end of her stint, she had boosted the agency’s Black and ethnic minority applications from 35 to more than 1,000, and increased the applications from women 16 fold. Six women and three Black men made it through to the final cohort, among them Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.
In the years that followed, Star Trek and Nasa continued to feed off each other. At the climax of the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it was revealed that the mysterious antagonist V’Ger, a vast and inscrutable alien capable of destroying all life on Earth, was in fact one of the agency’s Voyager probes, returned from a trip to deep space having acquired a personality. Four years later, Nasa’s first laptop computer, which went to space on the shuttle Columbia, rejoiced in the code name SPOC (for Shuttle Portable Onboard Computer).
In 1986, when three of Nichols’s recruits were killed in the worst space disaster since Apollo 1 caught fire on the launchpad, Star Trek paid an official tribute. A title card at the start of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home read, “The cast and crew of Star Trek wish to dedicate this film to the men and women of the spaceship Challenger whose courageous spirit shall live to the 23rd century and beyond …”
In later years, several Star Trek personalities followed in their footsteps postmortem. After James Doohan, who played Scotty, the chief engineer, died in 2005, some of his ashes were smuggled aboard the International Space Station by “space tourist” Richard Garriott, and in 2012, an urn containing more of his ashes was sent into orbit on the unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9. Both Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, and his wife Majel Barrett (voice of the Enterprise computer, among other memorable Star Trek roles) have also made a posthumous voyage to the heavens.
Now Cpt Kirk himself will be joining them, if only temporarily. Robust and garrulous as ever, Shatner shows every sign of living for ever – or at least until Star Trek’s imagined 23rd century, when space flight is a birthright of all humans.
As a point of fact, though, he is not the first Star Trek star to make it into space alive. That honour goes to Mae Jemison, a physician, engineer and astronaut, who became the first Black woman in space. A longtime Star Trek fan, Jemison credited Nichelle Nichols with sparking her interest in the space program. In 1993, she returned the favour, appearing as Lt JG Palmer in the Next Generation episode, Second Chances.
At least Shatner will have one laurel wreath to fall back on. Barring a rush of nonagenarian space tourists, he is likely to hold the record for the oldest human to leave the planet for many years to come.