William Shatner’s journey to the final frontier aboard a Blue Origin spaceship last fall seemed like the perfect opportunity to strike profound joy and celebration into a man who had played a space traveler on TV for decades.
But Shatner, who was 90 at the time of his flight, and is a longtime environmental advocate, writes in a new book that the experience was among the strongest feelings of grief that he had ever encountered.
In an excerpt of “Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder,” published by Variety last week, the Star Trek actor wrote that everything he expected to feel about going to space was wrong.
I had thought that going into space would be the ultimate catharsis of that connection I had been looking for between all living things—that being up there would be the next beautiful step to understanding the harmony of the universe. In the film “Contact,” when Jodie Foster’s character goes to space and looks out into the heavens, she lets out an astonished whisper, “They should’ve sent a poet.” I had a different experience, because I discovered that the beauty isn’t out there, it’s down here, with all of us. Leaving that behind made my connection to our tiny planet even more profound.
It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness. Every day, we are confronted with the knowledge of further destruction of Earth at our hands: the extinction of animal species, of flora and fauna . . . things that took five billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will never see them again because of the interference of mankind. It filled me with dread. My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral.
That account matches some of the emotion that Shatner displayed upon landing in the West Texas desert on Oct. 13 as the oldest human to ever travel to space. He greeted Jeff Bezos, telling the Blue Origin and Amazon founder that the 10-minute trip was the most profound experience he could imagine.
“I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. It’s extraordinary,” Shatner said at the time. “I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it. It’s so much larger than me and life.”
Shatner traveled with three other spacefliers: Chris Boshuizen, a venture capitalist who co-founded Planet Labs; Glen de Vries, a co-founder of Medidata Solutions who is now an executive at Dassault Systems; and Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s vice president of New Shepard mission and flight operations.
In his book, he said he later learned that his feelings were not unique.
“It is called the ‘Overview Effect’ and is not uncommon among astronauts, including Yuri Gagarin, Michael Collins, Sally Ride, and many others,” Shatner wrote. “Essentially, when someone travels to space and views Earth from orbit, a sense of the planet’s fragility takes hold in an ineffable, instinctive manner.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Shatner expanded on the grief he feels for the planet and how, at 91 now, he views the experience as “a clarion call” to stop climate change.
“I am aware that every moment that goes by, things that took 5 billion years to emerge are going extinct,” Shatner told The Post. “We’ll never know them.”