Black ugliness and the covering of blue: William Shatner’s suborbital flight to “death”
by Deana L. Weibel
|Few have spoken of space as “death,” the way William Shatner put it upon his return from his Blue Origin flight.|
Many astronauts experience what journalist Frank White has termed “the Overview Effect.” This phrase refers to the sudden, sometimes spiritual understanding achieved from leaving our planet and seeing it from the outside. White explains that “The Overview Effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the earth from orbit… It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality that the Earth is in space, a tiny, fragile ball of life, ‘hanging in the void,’ shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere.” (2014, 2) Space travelers have frequently remarked on the thinness of the atmosphere or the realization that the borders between countries are largely arbitrary and unnatural, not “real” in any visible sense. Their sense of the world seems to change.
Among the astronauts I’ve interviewed as a cultural anthropologist studying religious aspects of space exploration, most have had some experience of the Overview Effect, but others were unaffected. An astronaut I’ll call “Alan,” for instance, told me, “The first time I looked out at the Earth from space… I even intentionally paused and kind of collected myself and meditated a little bit to kind of clear my head before I opened my eyes and looked out the window for the first time. And I didn't really feel anything. It's kind of a letdown. There was nothing. And maybe it's because I'm not a spiritual person, that’s quite possible…It was a beautiful sight and a unique vantage point, but there was nothing about it that I felt in any way unlocked any kind of philosophical mysteries or spiritual mysteries.”
For others, the experience is life-changing, with the realization of the Earth’s delicacy inspiring environmentalism, such as in the cases of astronauts José Hernández, Scott Kelly, Mary Cleave, and many of their peers. Like them, Shatner clearly experienced the Overview Effect even during his very short suborbital flight above the Kármán line. In his now-famous post-flight conversation with Jeff Bezos, broadcast live and unfiltered, for instance, he described the fragility of the planet, saying, “This air which is keeping us alive is thinner than your skin. It’s a sliver. It's immeasurably small when you think in terms of the universe. It’s negligible, this air… It’s so thin.”
William Shatner was also focused on the color and character of the thin blue atmosphere that surrounds the planet, calling it “this comforter of blue that we have all around us.” Many of his analogies described the Earth as though it were a cozy bed with an atmosphere that was “this sheet, this blanket, this comforter of blue,” even a “pillow,” that the spacecraft sped through like when “you whip off a sheet off you while you’re asleep,” exposing the space beyond. The home he briefly left behind was “mother, and Earth, and comfort.” Like many space travelers, Shatner’s words convey a new appreciation for his planet based on leaving it behind, if only for a few moments.
|In Shatner’s initial reaction upon landing, outer space was seen as the opposite of Earth’s blue comforter. His description was, in fact, quite negative.|
Outer space, on the other hand, described as “black” in contrast with the Earth’s “blue,” was not a source of comfort, and Shatner described it in a way that spacefarers rarely do. In interviews and memoirs astronauts will talk about the beauty of the stars and a sense of the immensity of the universe around them. Michael Collins described his subjective reaction during his Gemini 10 spacewalk this way: “My God, the stars are everywhere: above me on all sides, even below me somewhat, down there next to that obscure horizon. The stars are bright and they are steady. Of course, I know that a star’s twinkle is created by the atmosphere, and I have seen twinkle-less stars before in a planetarium, but this is different; this is no simulation, this is the best view of the universe that a human has ever had.” (1974, 220-221) Other astronauts have described being in space in a much more matter-of-fact way, with Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke writing “Stars don’t look any different from the moon than they do from earth” (Sweet Sixteen Has Arrived!, Location 2517).
Shatner’s experience, in contrast, did not seem to involve stars and did not appear to include marveling at the beauty of the universe (even though video of the flight released later shows him rapt and nearly motionless at his capsule window.) In his initial reaction upon landing, outer space was seen as the opposite of Earth’s blue comforter. His description was, in fact, quite negative. He told Jeff Bezos that upon leaving the atmosphere to go into space, “(Y)ou’re looking into blackness, into black ugliness.” He continued, “There’s the blue down there, and the black up there… Is there death? I don't know. Was that death? Is that the way death is?” He contrasted his expectations of space (no doubt at least partially acquired during his decades portraying space-explorer and Enterprise captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek original series and later movies) with what he really experienced: “…it’s mysterious, and galaxies, and things, but what you see is black.”
The men then had this exchange:
Jeff Bezos: And you're just in blackness.
William Shatner: And you’re in death.
Jeff Bezos: Yeah.
William Shatner: The moment you—
Jeff Bezos (pointing to the ground): This is life.
William Shatner: This is life and that’s death. And it’s in an instant, you go, “Whoa! That's death.” That’s what I saw.
Only one of the astronauts I’ve interviewed, a retired Apollo astronaut I call “Zack,” described space in a similarly negative way. During a mission to the Moon he had the opportunity to see the cratered satellite from its own orbit and found it daunting. He explained, “I’ve got to say… thinking back on it now, I think the most profound thing I witnessed was seeing the Moon up close. And it’s hostile… it’s like, to give you an example, if you get dumped out of a car in the middle of the Sahara Desert… would you think that was hostile? I think you would. So what does hostile mean? It means it’s a very unfriendly place. And the Moon’s very unfriendly, it’s very unforgiving. Very, very difficult.”
|A private astronaut like William Shatner doesn’t have to maintain military discipline or a keep to a certain “steely-eyed missile man” image; as a civilian he is permitted to share his experience informally and emotionally, turning the tables on his Captain Kirk character.|
Why is it typically so unusual to hear such candid language about the hostile, unfriendly, “death”-like aspects of space? NASA astronauts go through extensive training with the agency and many of them have had military training as well. There is an expectation of discipline and a willingness to follow orders, and many active astronauts control their behavior, particularly in public, so as not to jeopardize a seat on a future flight. When first-time NASA astronauts are asked about their experiences, they tend to give carefully crafted answers that help maintain a certain image and are certainly never livestreamed on social media giving off-the-cuff impressions of a mission a mere ten minutes after landing. Non-NASA spaceflight participants have certainly flown before, but they have always worked with space agencies that were cautious to control appearances. With 2021’s abundance of private spaceflights from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission, however, things have been different.
An all-civilian crew is a new phenomenon and NASA’s spartan approach is largely absent. A private astronaut like William Shatner doesn’t have to maintain military discipline or a keep to a certain “steely-eyed missile man” image; as a civilian he is permitted to share his experience informally and emotionally, turning the tables on his Captain Kirk character, who explored new worlds in a galaxy that was filled with drama and life, certainly not a place of “black ugliness.” The sincerity and effusiveness of Shatner’s description of his experience, then, seems unorthodox and unexpected, but also genuine and charming.
Outer space is not a normal part of the habitat of homo sapiens. Leaving the Earth, even on a short suborbital flight, removes humans from the environment that sustains them and takes them somewhere truly taboo, a realm that only became available a handful of decades ago and where life is only supported with great difficulty. Although it can be argued that our solar system, galaxy, and universe are part of the “natural world,” from the perspective of Earth-bound creatures like us, anything beyond the atmosphere is deeply, jarringly unnatural. Performer William Shatner, a celebrity as familiar to many of us as a member of our own family, broke that taboo, went into that unnatural place, had the blue sheet pulled back, saw death, and lived to tell the tale, spontaneously and honestly, about “the enormity, and the quickness, and the suddenness of life and death, and the… Oh my God.”
And what a tale it is.
Collins, Michael. Carrying the Fire; the Fire Carrier Tells It like It Was (Apollo II). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.
Duke, Charlie, and Dotty Duke. Moonwalker. Murfreesboro, TN: Rose Petal Press, 2011. Kindle.
White, Frank. The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. Reston, VA: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2014.
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