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William Shatner describes the profound grief he felt when he finally went to space for real

The OG Captain Kirk's real-life space experience holds important lessons for us all.

"William Shatner" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

William Shatner's trip to space wasn't what he expected.

Statistically speaking, the number of humans who have traveled into space is insignificant. But the experience of leaving our home planet and venturing into the great beyond is incredibly significant for the individuals who have actually done it.

One of those fortunate humans is actor William Shatner, who spent three years pretending to hurtle through space in his iconic role as Captain James T. Kirk on the original "Star Trek" series. As captain of the USS Enterprise, Captain Kirk was dedicated to exploring "strange new worlds," seeking out "new life and new civilizations" and boldly going "where no man has gone before."

Naturally, Shatner has spent a lot of time pondering what it would be like to actually experience leaving Earth, and when he took the opportunity to join Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin trip to space in October 2021 at age 90, he was able to compare how his expectations met up with reality.


Shatner shared an excerpt from his new book with Variety, and it reveals that his initial reaction to being in space was surprisingly dark.

"I love the mystery of the universe," Shatner wrote. "I love all the questions that have come to us over thousands of years of exploration and hypotheses. Stars exploding years ago, their light traveling to us years later; black holes absorbing energy; satellites showing us entire galaxies in areas thought to be devoid of matter entirely… all of that has thrilled me for years…"

However, as he looked out the window of the spacecraft—a real one, not a screen on a film set—and looked in the direction opposite Earth, "there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold," he wrote. "All I saw was death. I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness. It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep, enveloping, all-encompassing."

As he turned back toward "the light of home," he saw the opposite. "I could see the curvature of Earth, the beige of the desert, the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky. It was life. Nurturing, sustaining, life. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I was leaving her."

Then he had a stunning revelation: "Everything I had thought was wrong. Everything I had expected to see was wrong."

Again, this is a man who has spent much of his life thinking about space—not as an astronaut or astronomer or astrophysicist, but as a human being stuck on the Earth's surface, struck with wonder about what's out there. He explained what he had been wrong about:

"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."

Shatner explained how this "sense of the planet’s fragility takes hold in an ineffable, instinctive manner" for many astronauts when they view Earth from orbit. It's part of the "overview effect"—the profound shift in perspective that comes with seeing our collective home from a distance. With no visible borders between nations or peoples, it becomes clear that our divisions are all manmade, which can change the way we view humanity as a whole.

The experience left Shatner with renewed conviction to focus on what we share in common.

"It reinforced tenfold my own view on the power of our beautiful, mysterious collective human entanglement," he wrote, "and eventually, it returned a feeling of hope to my heart. In this insignificance we share, we have one gift that other species perhaps do not: we are aware—not only of our insignificance, but the grandeur around us that makes us insignificant. That allows us perhaps a chance to rededicate ourselves to our planet, to each other, to life and love all around us. If we seize that chance."

Just beautiful. Since most of us will never leave Earth, we can take inspiration from those who have, acknowledge our essential oneness and do everything in our power to protect our beautiful, life-giving home.

Shatner shares more of his reflections on life on this planet and beyond in his new book, "Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder."

The infinite beauty of space is visible to us because of NASA.

Ever since the space race began on Oct. 4, 1957, the U.S. has worked tirelessly to stay at the forefront of space exploration. Starting with Eisenhower and the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958, we've been exploring space and sharing it with the world for almost 60 years.

Recent government decisions to limit communication and budget cuts fromboth partieshave led to the notion that one day soon, we could be without NASA. Which would leave us without a future of pioneering, groundbreaking, and stunning images like the ones below.


1. A view from above.

This image is from the Apollo 11 mission.

Photo by NASA/Newsmakers via Getty Images.

2. A "young" cluster of stars.

They're only 2 million years old.

Photo by NASA/Flickr.

3. A galaxy far, far away ... 55 million light-years away.

Technically this galaxy is called NGC 4013. It's similar in shape to the Milky Way (this is a side view), but the difference is that this Hubble-produced image is a whopping 55 million light-years away. Or 16.8 million parsecs, if you're interested.

Photo by NASA/Newsmakers via Getty Images.

4. The death of a star.

Some of us may be feeling crushed lately. Allow this star to empathize with you. In space, dead stars can still pulse, and in the deep center, you'll see the "heart" of this exploded star.

Ready for space facts? This is called a neutron star. NASA tells us "it has about the same mass as the sun but is squeezed into an ultra-dense sphere that is only a few miles across and 100 billion times stronger than steel."

Photo by NASA/Flickr.

5. Even artist concept images from NASA are mind-blowing.

In 2011, the WISE telescope had to be retired because it was overheating too much. But before it was shut off, it made the discovery of millions of potential black holes. This image is an interpretation of a quasar. I wish it were a scene from "Doctor Who."

Image by NASA/ESAvia Getty Images.

6. Jupiter rising.

Plato summed it up perfectly when he wrote that "Astronomy compels the soul to look upward and leads us from this world to another."

Photo by NASA/Flickr

7. Ever wonder what a gamma ray burst is?

NASA's got you covered.

Photo by NASA/Getty Images

8. From a distance, the world looks...

If you think the zoom on your mobile is impressive, this picture of Saturn was taken by the spacecraft Cassini in 2002 from 177 MILLION MILES AWAY.

Photo by NASA/Getty Images.

9. A giant leap indeed.

Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin, a U.S. flag, and the moon. July 20, 1969.

Photo by NASA/Newsmakers.

10. Venus transit across the sun.

Venus is a massive planet. But the sun is oh my goshbig. Here is what it looks like while going across the sun as photographed by the SDO satellite in June 2012.

Photo by SDO/NASA via Getty Images.

11. Paging Matt Damon.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover took 33 telephoto images and stitched them together to show us that California's drought is nothing compared to this.

Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images.

12. Best pumpkin ever? or just the sun laughing at us?

Photo by NASA/Flickr.

13. It's the final countdown!

The legendary space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on July 8, 2011, for the last time in NASA's shuttle program.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

14. This is what an oil change looks like in space.

Photo by NASA via Getty Images.

15. Pure human joy.

This photo shows NASA and JPL celebrating the success of the solar-powered Juno spacecraft successfully joining Jupiter's orbit. This took five years and on July 4, 2016, it started to successfully transmit data back to Earth.

That is what pure human joy looks like.

Photo by RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images.

NASA has brought the limitless beauty of space to our fingertips for almost 60 years. The images here represent just a microscopic sample. The ingenuity, drive, and determination shown is immeasurable. The unbelievable scientific and technological advancements are a true testament to what it means to be at the forefront of space exploration. Here's hoping we can celebrate NASA's 60th next year.

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She was raising $2,600 so 100 girls could see 'Hidden Figures.' She just cleared $13,000.

'I figured this movie would be a good starting point to show girls that even when life gets hard, you have to keep going.'

On Dec. 15, 2016, 13-year-old space enthusiast Taylor Richardson had the experience of a lifetime.

She saw a special screening of "Hidden Figures" at the White House alongside the cast of the movie, first lady Michelle Obama, and several NASA astronauts.

From left, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Kevin Costner. Photo by NASA/Aubrey Gemignani.


Not only was the biopic about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan — three women who were the unsung heroes behind the first successful NASA missions into space — inspiring to Richardson on many levels, what hit home most for her was what Michelle Obama said about everything they were up against.

"These women couldn’t even drink from the same water fountain or use the same bathroom as many of their colleagues … and folks didn’t always take these women seriously because they were black and also because they were women," Obama explained that night.

The first lady also talked about how few women — and even fewer women of color — there are working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields today.

The experience made Richardson want to do whatever she could to show girls that their STEM skills are not only welcome, but finally being celebrated.

"I've been to four space centers, and not once were these women and their contributions that impacted our space program mentioned," writes Richardson in an email.

Photo via Fox Movies.

She decided to start a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to offer 100 girls the chance to see "Hidden Figures" for free in the theater.

"I figured this movie would be a good starting point to show girls that even when life gets hard, you have to keep going," Richardson explains.

She included in her budget goal enough money for each girl to get a snack and a copy of the book on which the movie was based.

Literacy is very important to Richardson, who regularly collects gently used STEM books and donates them to schools and children in need. "I've donated over 3,000 books and read to over 250 kids in Jacksonville about STEM and space," Richardson says.

In just 18 days, she exceeded her goal of $2,600 five times over. That extra  money will go toward more screenings for girls who could use some STEM  inspiration right now.

Richardson with NASA astronaut Yvonne Cagle. Photo via Taylor Richardson.

Despite women's growing in STEM work and space exploration these days, there is still a major disparity of women of color in these fields. No doubt the lack of representation in the history books and, until recently, on screen has something to do with that.

While Richardson's idea to provide free movie screenings may seem small, her commitment to changing the game for women of color in STEM is not.

She's far from alone in seeing what the impact a movie like "Hidden Figures" can have on the next generation of girls.

There's a reason "Hidden Figures" has remained #1 at the box office for two weeks straight, beating out blockbusters like "Rogue One." Representation matters — for girls dreaming of being astronauts, women of color who have trouble finding role models, and anyone else who feels left out of history.

Hopefully, thanks to movies like "Hidden Figures," more and more girls will realize there is a place for them in STEM fields.

Richardson, whose goal is to be the first person to walk on Mars, offers some sound advice for girls on the fundraising page: "It's important that girls not only look at the stars but take the steps to reach for them."

On Aug. 28, 2016, six NASA scientists walked outside for the first time in a full year.

They stepped out, the morning fog just beginning to clear over the barren hills, having spent the last 365 days living in a 36-foot-diameter geodesic dome nestled in the volcanic mountains of Hawaii — the closest Earthly analog for the landscape of the planet Mars.

The longest space travel simulation ever conducted in the United States was complete.


The team emerging from their research habitat in Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Image via University of Hawaii news/YouTube.

Why spend a year in simulated space?

If we ever send human beings to Mars, they'll be on their own for a long time.

Exactly how long depends on the position of the planets, what technology and innovations are in place at the time, and countless other variables, but even the most conservative estimates assume the round-trip-plus mission-time from Earth to Mars will take multiple years.

The HI-SEAS Mission Habitat. Image via University of Hawaii News/YouTube.

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (or HI-SEAS) was designed to find out exactly what happens to human beings when they're forced to live in a small NASA-designed habitat for an extended period of time with their only walks outside confined to a spacesuit.

"The purpose of it is to find out everything that can go wrong before it does go wrong," Mission Commander Carmel Johnston explained over the phone.

HI-SEAS IV Commander Carmel Johnston. Photo courtesy of Carmel Johnston.

Would there be in-fighting? Depression? Would astronauts start seeing the walls move? NASA needs to know in order to best prepare for future Mars missions.

Think back on the past year — while you were experiencing your everyday life, six researchers were experiencing it (on a delay) from inside a literal bubble.

When the HI-SEAS scientists did receive news from the outside world, it was significantly delayed to simulate the amount of time it would take for information to travel from Earth to Mars. That's a lot of news to be behind on too.

"We’d hear about the terrorism attacks and people dying and all of these terrible things secondhand and way after the fact," recalls Johnston. "So it was still disturbing to hear about them but we couldn’t do anything; we were stuck in the dome not able to help in any way."

Crew member Sheyna Gifford even lost her grandmother while living in the habitat.

"I said goodbye to my grandmother over a delayed video message,” Gifford told the Huffington Post. "That’s not something any of us ever want to do."

The time spent in the HI-SEAS dome wasn't all doom and gloom, however.

"You get into a routine," Johnston said, explaining that the researchers kept themselves busy with daily research tasks, habitat upkeep, meal prep and cooking, regular exercise, and answering emails from family and friends when they could.

And yes, she says, there was plenty of time left for goofing around too.  

Tristan Bassingthwaighte — the crew architect and self-appointed prankster — prides himself on always keeping his fellow crewmates on their toes.

"One of the crew members would always leave their tea out," Bassingthwaighte said, proudly recalling one of his best pranks. "They left it everywhere, usually in the microwave. You’d go to put something in in the morning and knock tea everywhere."

Tristan Bassingthwaighte, resident prankster and "Doctor Who" fan. (Unlike the TARDIS, the dome was unfortunately not bigger on the inside). Photo courtesy of Carmel Johnston.

When that crew member went to bed, Tristan snuck into the kitchen and put the cup of tea in the freezer. Then he snuck back down early in the morning to take it out.

"To this day they're convinced that the temperature dropped below freezing in the habitat," he said, delighted.

Now that they're "back on Earth," the six members of the HI-SEAS experiment will spend the next few days re-adjusting.

They'll be catching up with friends and family and enjoying some long-awaited conversations with people other than each other.

"Any new face or voice is kind of like a little present at this point," Bassingthwaighte said.

Most importantly, they'll be presenting an unprecedented amount of data and findings to NASA from their year-long mission.

Mars. The real one. Photo via NASA/Getty Images.

"What we gave the researchers to look at, for however many months it takes them to analyze the data, is just invaluable," said Commander Johnston. "It’s gonna be so much information and it’s gonna be geared towards helping all the future astronauts."

With a year of simulated martian life under her belt, if given the chance, would Johnston be interested in going to Mars for real?

"If I was asked, I certainly would go," Johnston said of a trip to the red planet. "But I think that my role is gonna be more the supportive role of finding out how to better support astronauts and how to get them the stuff that they need in order to be successful. And I’m OK with that because it’s still super cool."