by Anmol AhujaJan 16, 2022
Captain Kirk flies to space, for real
When Captain James Kirk of Star Trek USS Enterprise flew to the edge of space on Blue Origin’s suborbital rocket New Shepard 4 (NS4) (christened RSS First Step) on October 13, 2021, the world came full circle for me and my contemporaries who grew up on a staple of Star Trek with Captain Kirk played by Canadian actor William Shatner(1) though I must admit my favourite character was science officer and first officer of USS Enterprise, the Vulcan Spock(2), played by the actor Leonard Nimoy.
New Shepard is a space tourism rocket manufactured by Blue Origin(3), a private spaceflight company started by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. Shatner’s flight used New Shepard’s fourth variant (NS4) and was the 18th mission, the second crewed flight with four astronauts onboard. The first crewed flight took Bezos and his three co-passengers to the edge of space and back.
Growing up, Sunday mornings were set aside for watching Star Trek and Cosmos, on black and white television. While Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was philosophical in its portrayal of the universe, Star Trek Enterprise had action and drama set on a multi-generational spaceship exploring places in faraway galaxies. A perfect Sunday treat for a school girl like myself.
Shatner’s co-passengers on the New Shepard flight were Chris Boshuizen, co-founder of Planet Labs, a space data company providing unprecedented daily, global mapping of our Earth from space; Audrey Powers, a Blue Origin executive, and Glen de Vries, chief executive of the clinical research firm Medidata Solutions.
The array of emotions associated with William Shatner’s historic flight is best explained by the Guardian columnist Stuart Heritage. Quoting Heritage(4): "There are two competing schools of thought when it comes to William Shatner’s space mission. The first is characterised by a kind of awestruck wonder over the beautiful symmetry of it all: Shatner starred in Star Trek, which inspired a generation of engineers, the engineers built a rocket, the rocket flew Shatner into space. The second tends to think that letting a billionaire indulge an actor by flying him to the brink of the atmosphere in a spaceship shaped like a willy might not be the best use of our resources. Shatner in space is firmly for the first crowd.”
New Shepard flight experience
Like all New Shepard astronauts, Shatner and his fellow crew members had go to Van Horn, a small, rural Texas town near the Mexico border. They spent a few nights in Blue Origin’s Astronaut Village, a state-of-the-art pre-flight residential facility. They had to undergo days of extensive training, including flight simulations, meetings with engineers and control teams, flight-suit fittings, emergency procedure training and zero-gravity workshops to prepare them for space flight in the lead-up to launch day.(5)
This is a highly compressed (less than a week) training protocol compared to the nearly two-year version that NASA astronauts have to undergo.
The commercial New Shepard suborbital flight experience of a grand 11 minutes is designed to usher in the era of 'casual space tourism', which many (including myself) believe will have a detrimental effect on the near-earth space environment which is already polluted with millions of man-made debris objects moving at enormous speeds.(7) Unlike in the days of Gagarin and Glen, we cannot treat spaceflight without a good measure of eco-anxiety given the anthropogenic climate crisis that our home planet is now experiencing.
Blue Origin, the company that designs, builds and launches the New Shepard was founded by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com and owner of the Washington Post, nearly two decades ago in the autumn of 2000, in Seattle.
Making of the New Shepard
The New Shepard rocket’s variants (NS1, NS2, NS3, NS4) are fully reusable.
In November 2015, NS1 was the first reusable rocket to successfully make a soft landing on the ground, beating out the more famous Falcon 9 booster of Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, by several weeks.(8)
Blue Origin began a multi-year program of flight tests in 2015 that continued into 2021.(9) By mid-2016, the test program was sufficiently advanced that Blue Origin began flying suborbital research payloads for universities and NASA.(10)
The flight test program was completed in early 2021. The first flight to suborbital space carrying Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, Wally Funk, an 82-year-old pioneer of the space race, and an 18-year-old student - occurred on July 20, 2021.(11)
A phallic rocket with a capsule on top
New Shepard is a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing, crew-rated rocket developed by Blue Origin as a commercial system for suborbital space tourism. The rocket has a domed, wide capsule on top for passengers — giving it a phallic profile which is hard to miss. While this design makes it more stable and optimises cabin space, it has provoked gender questions around space travel and exploration.
Recently, a German feminist art group has revealed a vulva-shaped spaceship concept to counter the predominance of phallus-shaped space imagery and is encouraging the European Space Agency to help make it a reality in order to better represent humanity in space and "restore gender equality to the cosmos". The group Wer Braucht Feminismus? (WBF?), which translates to "Who Needs Feminism?", created the Vulva Spaceship concept to challenge the convention of phallic spacecraft design. The yonic craft was designed to signal inclusivity.(12)
The phallic New Shepard is a 60-foot-tall and fully autonomous rocket-and-capsule combination that cannot be piloted from inside the spacecraft. It is named after Mercury astronaut and Apollo moonwalker, Alan Shepard. 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 11 minutes. Here are some top-level specs for the rocket:(13)
Last flight: December 11, 2021
Launch sites: Launch Site One
First flight: April 29, 2015
Propellant: LH2 / LOX
This reusable suborbital rocket is designed to take passengers and research payloads into suborbital space past the Kármán line (approximately 100 km from the surface of the Earth) – the internationally recognised boundary of space, inside of a crew capsule.
The New Shepard flight profile is a fairly traditional one. The rocket shoots straight up, as rockets do, reaches escape velocity, then pops its capsule off the top just before the Karman line. The capsule, after exhausting its upward momentum, gently floats back to the surface under a parachute.(14)
With room for six astronauts, the spacious and pressurised crew capsule is environmentally-controlled for comfort and every astronaut gets their own window seat. The vehicle is fully autonomous. There are no pilots.(15) The crew capsule features six large observation windows, one per seat. New Shepard’s 19th mission, its third crewed mission was the first with a full crew complement of six citizen-astronauts.
Here is the exploded view of the New Shepard as it appears on the official Blue Origin website.
Climate math for space tourism
I had wrapped up my first essay in this series with a word of caution. I would like to reiterate that here lest we lose sight of anthropogenic climate change, we dare not take space tourism casually. The proponents will tell you that space tourism will democratise access to space. Well, yes, for those who can afford it, but at a great cost to the environment.
An apt comparison would be tourists flocking to Antarctica. During the 2019-20 season, the number of sightseeing visitors to this icy wilderness reached 74,000, with the vast majority travelling by ship. New research has extensively quantified the levels of black carbon in the snow near human settlements. Elevated levels of black carbon influences how snow absorbs light, a property known as “albedo”. Snow with a lower albedo will melt faster. As a result, the black carbon content in the collected snow samples could be used to infer whether snow melt rates might have increased due to human activity and emissions. The results were sobering. When examining tourist activities specifically, the scientists calculated that each visitor between 2016 and 2020 was effectively melting around 83 tonnes of snow, due largely to emissions from cruise ships.(16)
STIRship Enterprise: a special series on space architecture and design
In this flagship series, spaceship designer and entrepreneur Dr. Susmita Mohanty travels the cosmos with an expert’s lens to decode the future of life in space through design. STIRship Enterprise is a collection of essays to introduce terrestrial architects, engineers and designers to the world of Space Architecture + Design.