Canadian actor William Shatner’s reaction to his trip to space was a rare display of the emotional impact of seeing the Earth from above.
It’s a moving experience to see a grown man cry, especially the one who portrayed Captain James T. Kirk, the strong, brave, stoic commander of the starship Enterprise. But as Shatner stepped out of the Blue Origin New Shepard capsule after a brief trip to the edge of space, he broke down into tears over the profound vision he saw out the window.
“The beauty of that colour, and it’s so thin and you’re through it in an instant” he said in live video after the flight. Shatner described how he was amazed at how the blue sky quickly turned to black as he was carried up just over 100 kilometres to the edge of space, then from a high perspective, how that blue was reduced to an incredibly thin line along the horizon surrounded by the blackness of space.
It’s hard to tell from the ground how thin our atmosphere is, but it’s been compared to the relative thickness of the skin on an apple, and the troposphere, where we can live and breathe, is just a fraction of that.
We can imagine that it was a hard dose of reality for Shatner as he saw with his own eyes the frailty of the bubble of air that we all depend on as he so quickly blasted through it, and then saw how close the deadly environment of space actually is. Life and death all in one view. It’s easy to imagine that it could be an overwhelming sight.
Traditionally, astronauts have not been great at perceiving or expressing the profound impact of seeing the Earth from space. The early pioneers were all test pilots trained to keep their emotions in check so they could remain cool when things went wrong in experimental spaceships.
Imagine if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began screaming, “Oh no, we’re going to crash!” when their lunar module Eagle carried them towards a dangerous field of boulders during the first moon landing. Instead, they both remained calm, Armstrong took over manually and found a safe place to touch down.
When they held a press conference upon returning to Earth, it was all about the technology. They had a hard time expressing their feelings of exploring another world because they had to focus on a very difficult job rather than take in the scenery.
That “right stuff” attitude, calm, cool and taciturn, still prevails throughout much of the astronaut corps today. They are all trained to do specific jobs in space, and while there is time to look out the window and take photos, the grandeur of the Earth seems difficult to put into words.
But perhaps it’s different for space tourists because their experience comes all at once as more of a shock. Shatner didn’t prepare for years for his flight. Customers flying with Blue Origin train for only two days, during which they “learn about safety and zero-g protocols.”
And Shatner didn’t have anything to do during the flight except enjoy the ride and take in the view. He brought with him the perspective of a 90 year old who has seen a lot in his life. But he obviously hadn’t seen all of life reduced down to a thin blue line.
Perhaps Shatner’s emotional reaction to spaceflight is a portent of what is to come in space tourism. Imagine the impressions we would get from artists, painters, poets, writers who know how to express themselves in ways that really resonate, and communicate a unique sense of their experience.
There is only one planet Earth. If more people get the big picture, that can’t be a bad thing.