Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Sunday, October 24, 2021

Capt. Kirk Goes Back to Space Aboard New Shepard 

The first time I saw old, original “Star Trek” episodes, I thought the show was stupid.

But that was then.

Decades later, I came to appreciate the original “Star Trek” and its characters, adventures, its mission and its brilliance.

And now today, as Captain James T. Kirk goes back to space – OK, actually it is William Shatner, the icon who portrayed Kirk in the original series – escaped Earth’s binds and accelerated to the edge of space for his first time as a mortal, I am beaming.

Captain Kirk, now 90, returned to the heavens for the first time since his U.S.S. Enterprise starship mission ended in 1969. (OK, I know he later went on to portray Kirk later in several successful feature films, but bear with me here, OK?)

In a world of amazing technologies including AI, machine learning, supercomputing, quantum computing, natural language processing and more, this launch – part showmanship, part ego, part entertainment and part wasteful in a time when billions of people around the world don’t have safe shelter or reliable food supplies or education and medical care – is sort of a sideshow.

But it captures our imagination and interest all the same because Kirk (I know, I know, Shatner) is finally, really leaving the Earth.

Crew members Audrey Powers, William Shatner and Glen de Vries being driven to the launchpad on Oct. 13 before their flight on the New Shepard spacecraft. Image courtesy: Blue Origin

The Oct. 13 launch of the Blue Origin rocket, which is named New Shepard, took Shatner (or is it Kirk?) and his three fellow passengers some 66 miles to the edge of space. The sub-orbital flight high into Earth’s atmosphere and back took about 11 minutes and was flown automatically – without a human pilot and without an on-board control panel. The flight began from a Blue Origin launchpad outside Van Horn, Texas, and ended nearby as the craft parachuted back to Earth and landed in a nearby Texas desert.

Shatner was accompanied by fellow passengers Dr. Chris Boshuizen, the co-founder of Earth-observation company Planet; Glen de Vries, vice chairman for life sciences and healthcare at the French software company Dassault Systèmes; and Blue Origin engineer and vice president of mission and operations Audrey Powers for the company’s second crewed mission.

The lift-off, which was delayed about 49 minutes from its original 10 a.m. ET departure time, was flawless as the hydrogen-powered rocket fired and left its launchpad quickly, taking Shatner and the rest of the passengers not to the stars but roaring to a low-Earth apogee.

Yes, this was not an extended and more complex Mercury, Gemini or Apollo mission, or a NASA Space Shuttle flight, or a long-term stay aboard the International Space Station. But this was Captain Kirk (sorry, I know, it was actor William Shatner) flying into space at 90 years old, making him the oldest person ever to fly far above the Earth in a spaceship.

Billionaire Jeff Bezos, who founded Blue Origin using some $5.5 billion of the fortune he has amassed since he created and launched the e-commerce retailer, Amazon from his home garage in 1994, flew on the company’s first crewed mission in July. Bezos was accompanied by three other passengers on their first-ever crewed Blue Origin 11-minute flight. That flight proved the ship’s airworthiness and brought them back safely to Earth.

But today’s flight, to me at least, was bigger and bolder, even though it was no longer to a destination where no man had gone before.

I’m not a rabid Trekkie (or Trekker, as some prefer to be called) of the iconic series and its later shows. I’m not a super-fan. I do, however, own the whole set of original episodes of “Star Trek” on DVDs and enjoy watching them.

My excitement is all about the promise of technology, the excitement and discoveries of science and the possibilities that humans can reach when political, border, racial, social, national, class and societal lines meld for special moments, when we on the planet occasionally feel as one.

That happened most recently after the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks. It happened when Neil Armstrong placed his booted toes onto the moon’s surface for the first time on July 20, 1969. It happened the day JFK was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, seemingly a million years ago.

It happens.

Today’s launch is certainly not as significant as those time-freezing events.

But it was eye-opening and wondrous and reminds us of the possibilities of the technologies that continue to shape our world and all of us in it.

And all these years later, Kirk was still with us, beaming and sharing his adventures.

Lt. Uhura, Mr. Spock, Scottie and Dr. McCoy would have been proud.

The New Shepard capsule is shown parachuting safely to Earth after its Oct. 13 flight. Image courtesy Blue Origin.

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