Live Updates: William Shatner Goes to Space on Blue Origin Rocket

ImageAn artist’s concept of the New Glenn orbiter spacecraft.
Credit…Blue Origin

Blue Origin wants to go to the moon, build larger rockets and, according to Mr. Bezos, eventually move all polluting industries off Earth and into space.

The company is developing New Glenn, a reusable rocket that will be able to send nearly 100,000 pounds of satellites and other spacecraft into low-Earth orbit. The rocket’s debut launch, planned for late next year, has been delayed for roughly two years.

It is producing engines, known as BE-4, that will power New Glenn. And as another line of revenue, the company is selling those engines to its potential rival, United Launch Alliance, a rocket company co-owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin that has contracts to launch many NASA and Pentagon spacecraft to orbit and beyond.

Blue Origin is also developing a moon lander in a partnership with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, a company that worked on flight software for the Apollo missions. The lander, called Blue Moon, is designed to ferry astronauts to and from the lunar surface. Blue Origin pitched Blue Moon to NASA for a $6 billion contract, but the agency, facing a funding shortfall, decided it could only afford to select a lower bid pitched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX instead. Blue Origin is suing NASA to overturn the decision.

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“I wish I had broken the world record in the 10-yard dash, but unfortunately it was how old I was,” Mr. Shatner said, responding to a question from a BBC reporter on how it felt to be the oldest person to go to space.

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During a live TV interview with a CNN reporter on the landing pad, Mr. Shatner said he felt his trip was more than tourism and something much deeper. “Everyone needs to have the philosophical understanding of what we’re doing to Earth,” he said.

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At a brief press conference at the pad where the New Shepard booster landed, Glen de Vries, one of the paying customers, said the crew “had a moment of camraderie” when they reached space. “We actually just put our hands together,” he said. Ms. Powers said “we wanted to memorialize being together, there.”

“And then we enjoyed the view as much as we can,” Mr. de Vries said

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The actor who played Captain Kirk in “Star Trek” told Jeff Bezos his visit to the edge of space in the Blue Origin rocket was the most profound experience he could imagine.CreditCredit…Blue Origin, via EPA, via Shutterstock

A half-century ago, a television show told young people that space travel would be the coolest thing ever. Some of them were even inspired to work toward that goal. Science fiction met reality on Wednesday as one of those fans, now one of the richest people in the world, gave the show’s leading actor a brief ride up into the ether.

The mission went according to plan. The aftermath appeared unscripted, and all the better for it.

William Shatner, eternally famous as Captain James T. Kirk on the original “Star Trek,” returned to Earth apparently moved by the experience beyond measure. His trip aboard Jeff Bezos’ rocket might have been conceived as a publicity stunt, but brushing the edge of the sky left the actor full of wonder mixed with unease:

It was unbelievable … To see the blue cover go whoop by. And now you’re staring into blackness. That’s the thing. The covering of blue, this sheet, this blanket, this comforter of blue that we have around us. We say, ‘Oh that’s blue sky.’ And then suddenly you shoot through it and all of a sudden, like you whip the sheet off you when you’re asleep, you’re looking into blackness.

Mr. Shatner was talking to Mr. Bezos immediately after exiting the capsule with the three other passengers. The others greeted their family and friends. Champagne corks popped. There was lots of laughter, high-spirited relief. But Mr. Shatner, a hale 90 standing in the West Texas dust, talked about space as the final frontier:

You look down, there’s the blue down there, and the black up there. There is Mother and Earth and comfort and there is … Is there death? I don’t know. Was that death? Is that the way death is? Whoop and it’s gone. Jesus. It was so moving to me.

Mr. Bezos listened, still as a statue. Maybe he was just giving Mr. Shatner some space, but it was a sharp contrast to his appearance after his own brief spaceflight in July when he flew the same spacecraft as Mr. Shatner. Then, he held forth from a stage, rousing condemnation from critics of the vast company he founded as he thanked Amazon’s employees and customers for making it possible for him to finance his private space venture.

Or maybe Mr. Bezos was just acting naturally. His role model has always been the cool, passionless Mr. Spock rather than the emotional, impulsive Captain Kirk. Amazon, which prizes efficiency above all, was conceived and runs on this notion.

When he played at “Star Trek” as a boy, Mr. Bezos has said, he would sometimes take the role of the ship’s computer. Amazon’s voice-activated speaker Alexa was designed as a household version of the “Star Trek” computer, which always had the answer to every question.

The word “death,” repeatedly mentioned by Mr. Shatner in his post-flight monologue, is rarely thought of as a selling word for space tourism, which is after all what Blue Origin is promoting. But the actor did supply a positive endorsement.

“Everybody in the world needs to do this,” he said.

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Credit… Blue Origin, via EPA, via Shutterstock

After Blue Origin’s latest launch, much of the initial reaction focused more on William Shatner’s introduction to outer space than the particulars of the flight or issues with the company behind it.

Space agencies, celebrities and astronauts said they were thrilled to see Mr. Shatner, who is 90 and known to generations of science fiction fans as Captain James T. Kirk on the original “Star Trek” television series, become the oldest person to enter space.

Twitter accounts for the U.S. Space Force and NASA both congratulated Mr. Shatner, in messages that included emojis of the Vulcan hand gesture that means “Live long and prosper.”

“You are, and always shall be, our friend,” NASA’s message said, paraphrasing what Spock, Captain Kirk’s longtime first officer, said to Mr. Kirk as he died in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

Sue Nelson, a science journalist who wrote a book about Wally Funk, the woman who became the oldest person in space on Blue Origin’s first crewed launch in July, wrote on Twitter that she initially had “mixed feelings about today” because “William Shatner is about to break my friend Wally Funk’s short lived record.”

Ms. Nelson, a “Star Trek” fan, later said that she loved Mr. Shatner’s emotional reaction upon landing.

“He’s right of course,” she said on Twitter. “The Earth’s atmosphere is fragile. Space travel is extraordinary.”

Astronauts congratulated Mr. Shatner, too. Garrett Reisman, a retired NASA astronaut, shared a photo of himself dressed as Captain Kirk.

“This is a picture of a guy who went to space pretending to be a guy who pretended to be a guy who went to space who has now gone to space,” Mr. Reisman said.

Another retired NASA astronaut, Nicole Stott, thanked Mr. Shatner on Twitter for sharing his “feelings of awe and wonder” after he left the capsule.

Mr. Shatner was emotional, and loquacious, after he returned to Earth. He embraced Jeff Bezos, who owns Blue Origin and flew on its voyage in July, and tried to capture the experience in words.

“What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine,” Mr. Shatner said, adding that “I hope I never recover from this, I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it.”

Joey Roulette contributed reporting.

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Credit…Spacex, via Reuters

Almost 600 people have been in space, and before Wednesday, 48 of them were private individuals who were not government employees, according to data compiled by Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer and spaceflight data tracker. A little over a dozen of those 48 were tourists, while the rest included researchers or employees of space companies, like Ms. Powers, the Blue Origin executive flying with Mr. Shatner on behalf of the company.

The NS-18 crew has increased the number of private spacefarers to 52.

The first space tourist was Toyohiro Akiyama, a Japanese television journalist who launched to Mir, the Russian space station, in 1990. He spent seven days aboard. Picked among 163 candidates, the Tokyo Broadcasting Service paid for Mr. Akiyama’s seat aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, which until this year was the only vehicle that carried tourists to space.

Dennis Tito, an American engineer and businessman, became the first person to fund their own trip to space in 2001, launching to the International Space Station for an eight-day stay.

Other private individuals have gone to space, but they generally wouldn’t be construed as tourists because they were traveling on something like an official business trip. That includes the Russian film crew that launched to the space station last week. Yulia Peresild, a Russian actress, and Klim Shipenko, a film director and producer, are shooting scenes on the orbital laboratory as part of the first full-length feature film made in space. The crew is backed by Channel One Russia and Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency.

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Blue Origin says the crew’s capsule reached a peak altitude of 65.8 miles after ascending atop New Shepard at speeds of up to 2,235 miles per hour. In all, the mission lasted 10 minutes and 17 seconds

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The crew is expected to drive to the pad where the New Shepard booster landed to speak with reporters about their flight.

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Mr. Shatner told Mr. Bezos, “What I would love to do is to communicate as much as possible the jeopardy, the vulnerability of everything.” He added, “This air which is keeping us alive is thinner than your skin.”

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Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

Blue Origin considers the customers who fly aboard the New Shepard spacecraft to be astronauts, but the Federal Aviation Administration, which formally grants governmental recognition to astronauts, has yet to say it agrees.

Since 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates how space companies run their launch sites, has awarded private crews aboard private spacecraft “Commercial Space Astronaut Wings” — small gold pins that officially designate a passenger as a “commercial astronaut.”

The pins are akin to the badges awarded to military pilots who reached space in the 1960s, and only a handful of private citizens have received the wings. Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, was the most recent recipient after her SpaceShipTwo flight to space in 2019.

But all the private activity in space lately has spurred adjustments to the F.A.A.’s pinning process.

On the day Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin and Amazon, launched to space in July, the agency revised its criteria for awarding the wings, requiring individuals who go to space to be classified as a crew member, rather than just a spaceflight participant.

To be a crew member, the person must have completed training before their mission “on how to carry out his or her role on board or on the ground so that the vehicle will not harm the public,” the rules state. Crew members also must have “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.”

Still, the head of the F.A.A.’s commercial space office also has discretion to grant an honorary astronaut status to anyone who flies to space and demonstrates “extraordinary contribution or beneficial service” to commercial spaceflight.

Blue Origin calls its New Shepard passengers astronauts and awarded its first crew — Mr. Bezos, his brother Mark, Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen — its own company-branded pins in a ceremony hours after their flight. The crews of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight in July and SpaceX’s Inspiration4 orbital mission in September received similar pins from those companies.

Blue Origin has submitted applications to the F.A.A. for a formal designation of the passengers as commercial astronauts, but it has yet to receive a determination, a company spokeswoman said. The F.A.A. declined to say whether Mr. Shatner or any of his fellow passengers could be classified as commercial astronauts.

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After celebrations around the capsule, the crew lined up to get custom astronaut pins from Blue Origin. Mr. Bezos fastened the pins to each passenger. “OK, guys, we have four astronauts before you,” he said.

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“I’m so filled with emotion with what just happened,” Mr. Shatner said to Mr. Bezos on the ground, breaking into tears. “I hope I never recover from this,” he added.

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Mr. Shatner was next to exit the capsule and began describing his experience to Mr. Bezos, “It’s indescribable,” he said.

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Family and friends met the passengers outside the capsule as they exited. Ms. Powers, the Blue Origin vice president, emerged first, hugging her sister.

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Credit…Blue Origin

Blue Origin has declined to publicly state a price for a ticket to fly on New Shepard. The company is nearing $100 million in sales so far, Mr. Bezos has said. But it’s unclear how many ticket holders that includes.

“We don’t know quite yet” when Blue Origin will publicly announce a price, Mr. Bezos told reporters in July after his flight to space. “Right now we’re doing really well with private sales.”

Oliver Daemen, the Dutch teenager aboard Blue Origin’s first crewed flight in July, was occupying a seat that the company auctioned off for $28 million, a steep number that even shocked some company executives. Of that total, $19 million was donated equally to 19 space organizations.

Mr. Daemen, 18, wasn’t the winning bidder. His father, a private equity executive, was the runner-up in the auction and was next in line after the actual winner. That individual, who has not been named, plunked down $28 million before postponing their trip over a scheduling conflict, Blue Origin said at the time.

Tickets to the edge of space on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo were hiked to $450,000 in August, from $250,000, when the company reopened ticket sales after a yearslong hiatus.

Flights to orbit — a much higher altitude than Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic’s trips go — are far more expensive. Three passengers to the International Space Station next year are paying $55 million each for their seats on a SpaceX rocket, bought through the company Axiom Space.

Many wealthy customers and space company executives see the steep ticket prices as early investments into the nascent space tourism industry, hoping the money they put down can help lower the cost of launching rockets.

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Mr. Bezos, dressed in the same flight suit he wore to space in July, joined recovery teams at the capsule and gave double thumbs-up to each crew member through the spacecraft’s windows. Recovery personnel set up steps by the hatch door to help the passengers exit.

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Shatner scheduled a philosophical message to appear on Twitter as he soared into the skies.

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The crew, waiting to be helped out of the capsule, “have all given the thumbs up that they are doing A-okay,” said Blue Origin’s Ariane Cornell.

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Recovery teams are racing toward the capsule while the crew waits inside.

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The capsule has landed on the desert floor, kicking up a plume of dust and sand. “That was unlike anything they described,” Shatner said on the way down.

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Credit…Steven Senne/Associated Press

When William Shatner, 90, traveled to the edge of space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard on Wednesday he became the oldest person ever to reach such heights.

Mr. Shatner, whose name has been synonymous with space exploration since he played Captain James T. Kirk in the original “Star Trek” series more than half a century ago, became the first nonagenarian to cross the Kármán line, the widely recognized boundary between the atmosphere and space about 63 miles above the Earth.

Mr. Shatner became emotional when he emerged with three other passengers from the spacecraft’s capsule after it set down in West Texas and was met by the Blue Origin’s owner, Jeff Bezos.

The actor spoke of how the experience of seeing the blue earth from space and the immense blackness of outer space had profoundly moved him, demonstrating what he called the “vulnerability of everything.” The atmosphere keeping humanity alive is “thinner that your skin,” he said.

“I’m so filled with emotion with what just happened,” Mr. Shatner said to Mr. Bezos, breaking into tears. “I hope I never recover from this,” he added.

Mr. Shatner’s voyage came hot on the heels of one by Wally Funk, who at 82 was the oldest person to travel to space when she took part in a Blue Origin flight in July with Jeff Bezos, the company’s owner.

Ms. Funk excelled at tests for astronauts in the space program in the 1960s, before Mr. Shatner played Captain Kirk, but NASA did not allow women to become astronauts at the time.

John Glenn, who was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, also became the oldest person to reach space when he flew aboard a space shuttle mission more than 35 years later at the age of 77. Unlike Mr. Shatner or Ms. Funk, Mr. Glenn’s trip went to orbit, which requires a much more powerful rocket than the one powering Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft.

The youngest person ever to travel to space also flew on Blue Origin’s July flight. He was Oliver Daemen, 18, of the Netherlands.

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The capsule is descending from space under three big parachutes. “How about that, guys?,” Audrey Powers was heard saying on the live stream.

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The booster has touched down successfully, emitting a thunderous sonic boom across the desert.

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About five minutes into the mission, the crew should have unbuckled from their seats and floated freely around their capsule in the weightlessness of space. So far, Blue Origin has not released audio or video from inside the spacecraft.

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The crew is in space. The capsule has separated from the booster, continuing its ascent toward a peak altitude of around 66 miles above the Earth.

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New Shepard has reached “Max Q,” or the maximum aerodynamic pressure during its ascent to the edge of space. The capsule will soon separate from the booster.

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New Shepard lifts off, carrying William Shatner, Audrey Powers, a Blue Origin vice president, and two paying customers, Chris Boshuizen and Glen de Vries, to the edge of space.

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Less than two minutes from launch, and the bridge that connects the tower to the crew capsule has retracted.

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Mission personnel just checked off a laundry list of confirmations needed before proceeding with the launch. All of the rocket’s systems are good for liftoff, which is about seven minutes away. “I guess that’s it, huh?” Shatner was heard saying from the capsule.

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Credit…Virgin Galactic, via Reuters

Mr. Shatner probably won’t be the only celebrity flying to the edge of space on a privately built spacecraft. Virgin Galactic, the space tourism firm founded by Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur behind the Virgin Group, has a waiting list of hundreds of wealthy customers who want a trip on the company’s SpaceShipTwo space-plane.

Like New Shepard, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital ship flies to the edge of space. But it begins its trek attached to a larger carrier plane that takes off from a runway like a commercial airliner. Once it reaches the right altitude, SpaceShipTwo drops from the carrier plane and fires its rocket engine, launching the rest of the way toward the brim of Earth’s outer atmosphere, giving tourists a few minutes of weightlessness in space before free-gliding back to land.

Mr. Branson flew to space aboard SpaceShipTwo in July, earlier than originally planned and nine days before Mr. Bezos flew New Shepard. His SpaceShipTwo flight, with two pilots and three company employees also on board, was seen as a move to beat his rival billionaire entrepreneur to space.

While Blue Origin’s commercial tourism business is underway, Virgin Galactic is largely pausing flights with paying customers until late next year. It may complete one more flight this month carrying passengers from the Italian air force.

The two companies also face competition, at least for the most well-heeled passengers, from Elon Musk’s SpaceX. For a much higher price, around $55 million in some cases, customers can launch to low-Earth orbit for a few days inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, an acorn-shaped pod that is also being used to send NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX launched its first fully private mission to space in September, sending four citizens on a three-day trip orbiting Earth. One of the passengers, Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur, bought the seats for his three crewmates.

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The hold on the launch countdown clock is lifted, now ticking down to a liftoff time of around 10:50 a.m.

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The countdown clock remains paused at T-15 minutes. The last mission in July also paused at the same time before liftoff for about eight minutes.

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Wally Funk, the July mission’s oldest passenger, told the crew “I hope this flight will be the most fantastic experience of your life as it was mine.” Mark Bezos, Jeff’s brother who also flew on the first crewed flight, said “You lucky bastards,” eliciting laughs from Mr. Shatner and his fellow crew.

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Blue Origin’s “CapComm,” or the capsule communicator who talks to the passengers from mission control, read messages from New Shepard’s first crew in July. Oliver Daemen, the debut mission’s 18-year-old passenger, wished the crew well on their flight and said “I can assure you that it will be better than your best imagination.”

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The launch countdown clock is now paused again, 15 minutes before New Shepard’s planned liftoff. The four would-be astronauts remain inside the capsule.

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Mr. Bezos, who followed the crew all the way up the launch tower in his own Blue Origin flight suit, bid farewell to the crew inside the capsule, then closed the pod’s hatch door before leaving the pad.

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The passengers walked across a bridge atop the launch tower that took them to the crew capsule, each ringing a bell before boarding the spacecraft.

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Credit…Blue Origin, via Reuters

Blue Origin has test launched New Shepard 15 times without anyone on board. During each flight, the capsule, where passengers sit, has landed safely.

The booster, which carries the astronauts to space, crashed on its first launch. The crash occurred during its attempt to land, but the booster rockets stuck clean landings on every flight that followed.

In case things go awry during New Shepard’s ascent to space, the capsule is equipped with thrusters capable of jetting itself away from the booster rocket should a disaster like an explosion occur. Blue Origin tested this system in 2016, launching New Shepard to demonstrate the capsule’s abort system. Solid-fueled thrusters exerted 70,000 pounds of force for less than two seconds, swiftly distancing the capsule from its booster. The capsule then deployed a set of parachutes and landed softly.

For the company’s first crewed flight in July, the rocket carried Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Blue Origin and Amazon, to the edge of space along with his brother Mark, a Dutch teenager, Oliver Daemen, and Wally Funk, an 82-year-old pilot who was denied entry to NASA’s astronaut corps in the 1960s because of her sex.

That four-person mission was a crucial marketing opportunity for Blue Origin’s space tourism business and a display of Mr. Bezos’ confidence in the rocket’s safety record — if it can fly the world’s richest man, as well as the youngest and oldest people to go to space and back, Mr. Bezos has indicated, the rocket is ready to fly anyone.

While Blue Origin says its equipment is safe, the federal government doesn’t regulate the safety of rocket and capsule systems like New Shepard. The Federal Aviation Administration signs off that a rocket launch site is safe to the surrounding public, but the government agency does not have a say in how safe space vehicles have to be for their passengers. Passengers like Mr. Shatner must sign agreements before their flights acknowledging the risks associated with launching on top of a rocket to the edge of space.

In 2004, Congress put a moratorium on federal safety regulations for space tourists, giving the space industry a “learning period” in which companies can innovate without worrying about regulatory hurdles. That period is set to expire in 2023.

Though New Shepard and its capsule have a clean safety record, its safety culture has come under criticism. Earlier this month, 21 current and former Blue Origin employees said in an essay that the company’s work culture was rife with sexism and that safety concerns about New Shepard were often dismissed by management. Working quickly amid a race to launch Mr. Bezos on New Shepard took priority over focusing on safety matters, the employees said.

Blue Origin disputed those allegations, saying the company had an internal hotline for sexual harassment complaints and that New Shepard was the “safest space vehicle ever designed or built.”

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The crew has arrived at the launch pad in a pair of electric pickup trucks, stopping in front of the rocket for a photo opportunity before heading to the base of the launch tower. They’ll climb about four flights of stairs to board the capsule sitting on top of the New Shepard rocket.

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The launch countdown clock has resumed after a roughly 30-minute pause, which gave mission personnel some more time to monitor winds in the area and get the rocket ready for launch. Jeff Bezos is driving Shatner and the crew toward the launch site.

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The pause in the countdown clock has lasted 25 minutes so far, gradually pushing the liftoff time back. But a late launch isn’t a big deal for suborbital New Shepard flights as it is for rockets that go into orbit or to the International Space Station. New Shepard reaches an altitude just short of entering orbit and returns less than 10 minutes later.

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The launch countdown clock is paused at T-45 minutes, giving mission teams time to analyze winds in the area around the launchpad. The mission was originally scheduled to launch Tuesday, but heavy gusts pushed liftoff back to Wednesday.

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Jeff Bezos is in Texas and will guide the crew as it prepares for the launch, staying with the passengers all the way until they board the capsule.

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Blue Origin’s New Shepard, a 60-foot-tall rocket, was launched without humans 15 times before flying its first crewed mission in July. Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin’s billionaire founder, blasted off with his brother Mark and two others for that flight.

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Credit…CBS via Getty Images

The voyages of Captain James T. Kirk and the starship Enterprise in the 1960s created a fandom that has expanded exponentially over the decades, much like the cute but deadly tribbles of the original “Star Trek” television series. Now many “Trek” fans are excited as William Shatner, the man who embodies that role, readies himself to venture into space — for real.

“I think this is fantastic for the ‘Star Trek’ mythos, to have the guy who really started it all to go into space,” said Russ Haslage, who co-founded the fan organization The Federation, also known as the International Federation of Trekkers, with Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek,” in the 1980s.

Through the lens of “Star Trek,” human space travel has typically had a rosy tint. Much of the show’s universe takes place hundreds of years in the future, with humanity venturing into the Milky Way after surviving a brutal 21st century. Homo sapiens expand from our solar system under the flag of United Earth, a founding member of the United Federation of Planets, an egalitarian alliance of intelligent species. That vision, started in Mr. Roddenberry’s original TV series, is a culmination of the events set in motion by Yuri Gagarin in 1961, when he became the first human to travel to space.

Captain Kirk is arguably the most extreme incarnation of the show’s high-minded, moralistic vision.

“He’s the guy who’s at the center of all of this,” said Mr. Haslage, who’s planning to offer live commentary on the launch’s livestream via The Federation’s YouTube and Facebook pages. “There wouldn’t be any of this without Captain Kirk.”

Carly Creer, a moderator for a “Star Trek” Facebook group with over 150,000 members, grew up watching the original series with her father. Mr. Shatner is a regular at an annual “Star Trek” convention in Las Vegas that she often attends.

“If we didn’t have Captain Kirk and that awesome force that he created, we wouldn’t have the amazing fandom that we’ve got,” Ms. Creer said.

The involvement of billionaires like Jeff Bezos selling private spaceflight experiences to wealthy customers has generated considerable criticism. But among fans like Ms. Creer there is a fascination with what both NASA and private companies are working to accomplish.

“I’ve really appreciated how SpaceX and Blue Origin have stepped in,” she said. “I really think it’s just amazing. It’s been so wonderful to watch, because as a fan of ‘Star Trek’ all you want is to see that future that Gene Roddenberry created so well.”

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In a live video stream, Blue Origin’s astronaut sales director, Ariane Cornell, emphasized the company’s safety record, saying “safety has been baked into the design of New Shepard from day one.” Earlier this month a group of current and former employees criticized Blue Origin’s safety culture in an online essay.

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It’s a chilly morning near Van Horn, Texas, where William Shatner and three others in Blue Origin’s second New Shepard crew are about to get in their blue flight suits ahead of launching to space.

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Credit…Mike Blake/Reuters

The New Shepard tourist rocket has been a bright spot for Blue Origin, but other areas of the company have recently faced turmoil and difficulties.

In September, Alexandra Abrams, the former head of employee communications at Blue Origin, published an essay with 20 unnamed current and former employees of Blue Origin saying the company’s work culture was rife with sexism and that internal safety concerns were often dismissed by management. Working quickly to launch the company owner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos into space on the New Shepard took priority over focusing on safety matters, the employees said.

Since publishing the essay, Ms. Abrams said in an interview that she had received supportive messages from current Blue Origin employees and engineers. She said she also had heard from employees at other companies describing their workplace difficulties. That response surprised her, as she had expected an onslaught of attacks from others in the small aerospace industry. “I personally was very heartened to see the responses, from everyone but Blue Origin,” Ms. Abrams said.

Blue Origin disputed the allegations in the essay, saying in a statement that the company has an internal hotline for sexual harassment complaints and that New Shepard was the “safest space vehicle ever designed or built.” The company also said Ms. Abrams was fired over “repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations.”

Ms. Abrams said that was false, and that she was fired in 2019 over her disagreement with a new policy that she was asked to help rollout to prohibit workers from banding together to take legal action over workplace issues and force them to settle disputes in private arbitration with the company. Her decision to speak out about Blue Origin’s work culture, she said, came after hearing complaints and troubling stories from friends still at Blue Origin. The essay’s release made the current and former employees nervous, and resurfaced trauma from the sexual harassment some had experienced, Ms. Abrams said, “but they knew it was the right thing to do.”

“Even if there are absolutely zero issues with all of Blue’s programs, which is absolutely not the case, a toxic culture bursting with schedule pressure and untrustworthy leaders breeds and encourages failures and mistakes each and every day,” she added.

One immediate challenge Blue Origin is facing concerns its bigger, more powerful rocket, New Glenn, whose debut launch has been delayed by about two years. And development of the engines that power New Glenn, called BE-4, has been marred by technical hurdles. The company is selling those engines to another company, United Launch Alliance, which needs them to power its next-generation Vulcan rocket. The Pentagon picked Vulcan last year to launch the majority of its satellites to space through 2027, and a forthcoming NASA mission will use it to send a robotic lander to the moon.

Delivery of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines to U.L.A., though, is months behind schedule, worrying Pentagon officials who fear the Vulcan rocket might not be ready in time to launch its first national security satellites in 2022. Blue Origin had pitched its New Glenn rocket to the Air Force for that contract but lost to U.L.A. and SpaceX, the company led by Elon Musk and whose Falcon rockets will also launch some Pentagon satellites.

Blue Origin was hit with another loss in April on a lucrative NASA program to send the first American astronauts to the moon since 1972. The company partnered with three seasoned aerospace companies — Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper — to develop and pitch its Blue Moon lunar lander to NASA. But the agency, facing a funding shortfall, decided it could only afford to select a cheaper bid pitched by SpaceX.

Blue Origin protested NASA’s decision to pick SpaceX with the Government Accountability Office, which adjudicates contract disputes, but lost. The company then sued NASA to overturn SpaceX’s award in federal court, where litigation is expected to wrap up sometime in November.

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Credit…LM Otero/Associated Press

New Shepard is the centerpiece rocket of Blue Origin’s space tourism business. A booster rocket at the bottom stands six stories tall, with a capsule sitting on top that can seat up to six crew.

The suborbital rocket is named after Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space in 1961 and one of the astronauts who walked on the moon. It takes off from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One, a launchpad in rural West Texas about 100 miles from of El Paso.

The full mission lasts about 10 minutes. New Shepard launches to an altitude of roughly 63 miles, a widely recognized marker of where space begins and known as the Kármán line.

At peak altitude, the booster rocket releases its crewed capsule. The booster then begins a descent back toward the ground, reigniting its single engine to land vertically on a slab of concrete five miles from where it launched.

Back in space at the same time, the crew capsule is suspended in a free fall some 63 miles high. The passengers experience roughly four minutes of weightlessness in microgravity as well as views of Earth’s slightly curved horizon where its atmosphere meets space. Each seat has its own window of 3.5 feet by 2.3 feet.

“I’m thrilled and anxious, and a little nervous and a little frightened, about this whole new adventure,” Mr. Shatner said during an interview on NBC’s “Today” show on Monday.

During Blue Origin’s first crewed flight in July, passengers unbuckled and floated throughout the 530-cubic-foot capsule, amused by the weightlessness. They tossed candies to one another and did somersaults before getting back in their seats.

During the capsule’s free fall toward land, it deploys an initial set of parachutes to brake its speed, then another set of three bigger parachutes to carry the capsule softly to land at about 15 miles per hour. Milliseconds before landing in the desert — also not far from the launchpad — the capsule releases a burst of air from its underside to cushion the touchdown. The seats inside are supported by a scissor-like mechanism that further limits the impact.

Blue Origin had boasted that the windows on New Shepard’s crew capsule are the biggest to fly in space, but Elon Musk’s SpaceX snatched that superlative in September when it launched its Crew Dragon capsule to low-Earth orbit with a new glass dome that stretches 46 inches wide and 18 inches deep, covering 2,000 square inches in all.

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Credit…Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

The star name in the four-person crew that Blue Origin will launch to the edge of space on Wednesday is William Shatner.

For those who haven’t been paying attention since these voyages of the star ship Enterprise began more than 50 years ago: Mr. Shatner, now 90, played the indomitable Captain James T. Kirk in the original “Star Trek” television series that debuted in 1966. The show aired for three seasons, and Mr. Shatner returned as Kirk with members of the original cast for six films from 1979 to 1991. Captain Kirk perished in 1994’s “Star Trek: Generations.”

As the Trek media empire expanded since the original series (it now encompasses a growing multiverse of films and shows, as well as video games, merchandise, conventions and more), Mr. Shatner’s place as a bona fide science-fiction celebrity has only strengthened.

“It looks like there’s a great deal of curiosity in this fictional character, Captain Kirk, going into space,” Mr. Shatner said in a promotional video posted on Twitter by Blue Origin. “So let’s go along with it. Enjoy the ride.”

But his life in the public eye is far from limited to “Star Trek.”

For years, Mr. Shatner played a hyperbolized version of himself as “The Negotiator” in commercials (some with a Trek twist) for the travel agency Priceline.

He won two Emmy Awards and snagged nominations for his roles in the interconnected legal dramas “The Practice” and “Boston Legal” in the 1990s and 2000s (his “Star Trek” work never received Emmy or Oscar nods). He also received an outstanding guest actor nomination for a series of cameos as The Big Giant Head in “3rd Rock From the Sun.”

His age has not halted his work. Earlier this year, he was the lead actor in the romantic comedy “Senior Moment” alongside Jean Smart, 20 years his junior at 70.

Offscreen, Shatner has released several albums that straddle the line between music and spoken word poetry (a style that produced a particularly memorable performance of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards). In 2012, he came to Broadway with a one-man show that traversed his life and career. And even as a nonagenarian, he’s kept up with the kids and brought his distinct personality to Twitter, which has served as an ideal platform to hype his latest adventure.

Mr. Shatner, in an interview with CNN last week, said he’s bringing along on his jaunt to space a “little blue satchel” of mementos that includes “three or four little trinkets” from family and friends.

But during the flight, he intends to stay focused on looking back at planet Earth.

“I plan to be looking out the window with my nose pressed against the window,” he said during a chat last week with Blue Origin employees, clips of which the company posted on Twitter.

He then added, “The only thing I don’t want to see is a little gremlin looking back at me. Are you sure that’s not going to happen?”

Joey Roulette contributed reporting.

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Credit…Paul Ratje/Reuters

Liftoff is scheduled for 10 a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, and Blue Origin will stream it live on its YouTube channel. The video will begin about 90 minutes before the flight.

The launch was initially scheduled for Tuesday morning, but windy conditions over West Texas prompted Blue Origin to push the launch back 24 hours. If more strong winds pop up on Wednesday, the company could choose to delay the flight by another 24 hours, to Thursday.

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Credit…Blue Origin, via Associated Press

Three other passengers will join Mr. Shatner on Wednesday’s flight:

  • Audrey Powers, a Blue Origin vice president who oversees New Shepard flight operations; like Mr. Shatner, she did not have to pay for her seat.

  • Chris Boshuizen, a co-founder of Planet Labs, a company that builds small satellites, also known as CubeSats, that are used by assorted clients for monitoring Earth from orbit.

  • Glen de Vries, a chief executive and co-founder of Medidata Solutions, a company that built software for clinical trials.

Fortunately for all three, none will be wearing a red Starfleet uniform during the flight.

Dr. Boshuizen or Mr. de Vries are the second and third paying passengers to fly on a Blue Origin flight. The first was Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old man from the Netherlands. The company has not said how much any of these customers paid for their seats on the flights.

As ticket-purchasing customers, they are something like early investors in an industry executives hope will one day be cheap enough for a broader swath of the public to take advantage of.

Ms. Powers all but flew to space on New Shepard in April, when she and three other company executives were “stand-in astronauts” for Blue Origin’s 15th flight of the New Shepard rocket. She and her colleagues essentially performed a dress rehearsal for the missions with astronauts aboard. The executives went through all the motions of getting ready for a launch — climbing up the rocket tower, boarding the capsule, closing its hatch and testing out its communications system — until about 15 minutes before liftoff when they exited the capsule and left the pad.

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