The actor’s flight into space in 2021 left him with an urgent desire to make us aware of the fragility of our home—a feeling that has yet to fade away. Media reports at the time, as well as Shatner’s own writing about his voyage with Blue Origin, focused on the grief he experienced looking into the blackness of space. But there was always much more to it. As part of an exploration into the power of awe for Outside, contributing editor Florence Williams spoke to Shatner, now 92, about how confronting forces larger than ourselves—be that beauty and wonder or horror and sadness—can be overwhelming yet ultimately transformative.
Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
Florence Williams: I'd like to ask you about your fascination with space, because you've had it your whole life, and I wonder when it started, was there a particular time, do you remember?
William Shatner: I have a specific moment in time where I was probably eleven, twelve, somewhere around there, and I had been sent to a summer camp outside of Montreal. I was a city boy, and I was sitting on a log. And it was night. And I was looking up into the stars, and because of the light refraction from the city, I'd never really seen the stars as they were that country night where there was no light pollution.
And I stared up, and I fell over backwards on the log. Fell back on my back. I was so awed by the panoply.
Michael: It’s no surprise to learn that William Shatner, the now 92-year-old Canadian actor best known for playing one of Hollywood's most iconic spacemen, has had a lifelong fascination with space. It's also not surprising that when Jeff Bezos launched into the space tourism business with his company Blue Origin, he wanted Captain Kirk to join one of the earliest crewed flights. What is a bit surprising, however, is that when Shatner first got the invitation, he wasn't initially interested.
I'm Michael Roberts, and I remember all the hype when Shatner took his 11-minute round trip flight on the New Shepherd rocket ship in 2021 to just beyond the edge of our atmosphere. In the days after his voyage, and then last fall in his book Boldly Go, he shared many details of his mission. But we wanted to talk to him again as part of an exploration into the power of awe led by Outside magazine contributing editor Florence Williams.
Florence wrote a feature about awe for Outside's July-August print issue. And for the next two weeks on this show, she's bringing us highlights of her reporting on what happens in our minds when we're blown away by something we experience in the natural world.
We couldn't resist starting with her conversation with Shatner. As Florence learned, he went from being decidedly lukewarm about a trip into space, to having a transformational experience that helps us understand a side of awe that we rarely talk about.
Florence: How did the invitation come about to join the expedition with Blue Origin did you believe it?
Shatner: I had done a series called Better Late Than Never. And the producer of Better Late Than Never, his name is Jason Erlic. Jason said, ‘They're doing this thing on Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos’ and all that. And, um, I said, no, I don't want to go.
So he later said, as a good producer, I didn't take no for an answer. And I called them up and they said, well, come on up to Seattle. So he told me and I thought, all right, we'll go to Seattle and meet Mr. Bezos. Which we did. And Mr. Bezos turns out to be a big fan of Star Trek and we got along very well and sat around a board table and, and these couple of his minions were there and we talked about me going, oh man, it's a pretty good idea.
Michael: But then Covid hit, and apparently social bubbles in space are the same as on the ground. So Bezos took the first Blue Origin voyage to space with his brother. Shatner read about it in the paper.
By the way, Shatner recorded this interview in his home in LA, and you'll hear sounds of construction as workers repair a leak in his roof.
Shatner: And then they came back and said, would you like to go second? I said, I'm not gonna go second. And then I had lay thinking there one night, why don't I go? I've written this book about saying yes to life and such.
Michael: He's talking about his 2018 memoir, Live Long and ... What I've Learned Along the Way.
Shatner: And so that was essentially the road to going into space.
Florence: It sounds like you didn't expect it to be quite as profound as it was. I mean, you almost turned it down.
Shatner: Not only did I not think it was profound. I didn't think anybody would notice. I what, you know, so Shatner goes up in the air with, it's no big deal. And, it just went worldwide and apparently so many people were watching and it went on for days of this thing. I, I had no idea that it would be as popular as it was. Nor did I have any idea what, an experience it would be on my psyche.
I dispensed with all the marvel of weightlessness. I didn't want to do, turn somersaults or raise a fist in, uh, victory that we were up in the weightlessness.
I just wanted to get to the window and see what there was, and so I looked back. For some reason, I was looking back where we had come from and could see the wake of the spaceship in the air, like a submarine going through the water.
I'm like, God, I'd never heard it. Anybody discussed that? And then I looked ahead. And I saw the blackness of space and I'm as interested as anybody, probably more so than a lot of people, about the awe and wonder of space. I've spent a lot of time with people doing that and, but there was nothing there that was awesome or wondrous.
It was black, palpable black, and I saw death.
Michael: Our collective consciousness is filled with beautiful images of the universe taken from both science and science fiction. The swirling eye of Jupiter and the magnetic rings of Saturn. The horseshoe nebula and the twinkling ocean of stars that make up our galaxy. It's wondrous. But space is not at all hospitable to life.
When Shatner looked out through one of the windows of the New Shepherd, he didn't feel the awe he'd experienced as a kid at summer camp, only a dawning awareness of our fragility in the vast and violent cosmos.
Shatner: There was just black, black and, and then turning back to the Earth, I saw.
There was this paper thin atmosphere, which is, I coached the earth like 50,000 feet. But because I'm a pilot, I know that 12,500 feet is the limit where, where you are required to have oxygen. So about two miles of that air is usable.
So here is this little rock. Can you see the curvature of the earth? And you realize it's a little tiny rock with two miles of air. And that's all that's keeping us alive from all those forces. So how precarious our life is and how, you're clinging to this life raft.
What I didn't realize then, but only when we landed and I was weeping and I'm, what am I weeping about?
Shatner (from New Sheperd landing): This comforter of blue that we have around, we think ‘oh, that’s blue sky.’ And then somebody shoots you and all of a sudden and so you whip off a sheet, off like when you’re asleep. And you’re looking into blackness. Into black ugliness. And you look down, and there’s the blue down there and the black up there. And that’s the difference. The most profound experience. I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. It’s extraordinary. Extraordinary.
We don't realize how we are offending, destroying this life raft. And I was in mourning. I was in grief for the earth cuz I'm only too aware of how everything is disappearing.
Florence: And yet, even though you knew that going in cognitively, when you saw it like that, it sounds like it was really a surprise. There was something shocking about it.
Shatner: Yes. I was shown. It's one thing to talk about, ‘yeah, the Earth's very small. It's a pebbled thing.’
It's one thing to see how small it is.
When I was younger, summer before college started, I hitchhiked around the United States. I went from Montreal to Washington to San Francisco, to San Diego, to Vancouver, to Chicago, and back to Montreal on my thumb. It's endless. Endless. And I've driven. I've motorcycled across it. I've driven trucks. I've driven it alone. I've driven with dogs. I've driven with family. It's endless. The roads go on into infinity and you think, ‘My God, this is big.’
It's not. It's this little tiny rock that we're all living on and we have destroyed it. And we haven't stopped, uh, you know, we're, we're not even the process of stopping.
Florence: Do you think the experience changed you?
Shatner: It made it more imperative. I knew this. I ran a symposium some years ago with futurists in the, these futurists, stood in front of an audience, said, “Yeah, you know, tipping points coming along.”
But backstage when I get them all around, “Oh no, we've probably reached the tipping point.” That was many years ago.
It's really extraordinary. And for people to deny that it's happening is like somebody who owes the rent and doesn't have the rent money, you know, and goes off for a good meal or, or goes to a movie. It's just you, it's so bad. You wanna put your head in the sand.
Michael: We'll be right back.
Michael: When William Shatner traveled to space in 2021 at the age of 90, he had a profoundly moving experience. As he told Outside's Florence Williams, one of the strongest emotions he felt was despair over our treatment of the planet. But there was something else that came with that: a sense of duty to get us to confront the crisis.
Shatner: So I did this thing and I'm sitting around the campfire, in essence, interviewing Jeff Bezos. I, I had, was shooting a documentary. It was my idea to shoot the documentary, but eventually it was taken outta my hands, justifiably so, so other people could edit it and do it. But I put myself in the role of being the interviewer.
I was interviewing Jeff Bezos about. What his ambition is with space. And his idea is to get polluting industries up into space. So it pollutes up there and doesn’t pollute Earth. Earth becomes the park and people go up and live for two weeks up there and come back for two weeks. And that's his ambition with Blue Origin.
But I said, ‘Jeff, that'll take a hundred years and we don't have a hundred years.’
And he said, ‘We’ve got to have hope. Without hope. What have you got?’
So that's an idealistic, wonderful idea. We've got to have hope, otherwise what have we got? But at the same time, millions upon millions of people are being displaced everywhere on Earth. There's this wave of humanity coming, this rogue wave of displaced people that are gonna flood, that are already flooding.
It is a crisis, and to hear people say, oh, there's no crisis. It's like maddening. Like, like are you, are you insane? The fire, the house is burning down. What do you mean the house isn't burning down?
Florence: It sounds like you have a new urgency to tell the story.
Shatner: Yes, that's for sure.
Florence: When you, when you were crying up there, did the tears surprise you?
Shatner: I, I, the tears were in my eyes when I stepped out of the vehicle, and I didn't know why I was crying. So while everybody was celebrating having gone up and come down, I'm thinking, what the hell's the matter with me? I'm, I'm, I'm weeping on camera and I don't know what you know. Thank you so much.
And then I go sit down somewhere. What am I crying about? And I realize I'm in grief. What am I in grief? I've been in grief for the world. I'm in grief for the disappearance of things that, that have lived, have evolved to almost four billion years of life on Earth, to evolve into this incredible thing we call Earth.
And all these entities are, are disappearing and we don't even know they were alive.
So how sad is that? That the, this, these beautiful things evolved, life of this miracle and they're gone. The miracle was made and we weren't there to see it.
In fact, we had a hand in extinguishing it. It's so sad.
And that's what I was weeping about and I didn't realize it until I began to think more and more about, what am I, what was that? Oh, extinction. Of course.
Michael: Listening to Shatner speak, it sure doesn't sound like he experienced awe. I mean, there's not a lot of wonder at the magic of the universe and our place in it. He's talking about profound grief for humanity and the end of life on Earth.
According to Florence, however, awe isn't so simple. Sure it can be triggered by mind-blowing beauty, but it can also be triggered by the exact opposite.
Florence: Shatner himself kind of doubted that this was an awe experience because he was like, no, what I saw was horror. And when you go back to the writing of philosophers like Edmund Burke and the 18th century, they really define awe as being something that is influenced by feelings of horror and fear.
Awe is basically something that feels kind of a little bit overwhelming in the moment. It's a feeling that you're recognizing forces larger than yourself, and we like to think that those are forces of beauty.
But they're not always.
They can be forces of death. They can be forces of fragility, forces of, of also a sense, I think, of community. You know, in the sense that he, I think, really felt affiliated with Earth and earthlings and, and this recognition of we are all really screwing up this planet because it has a very thin atmosphere, and outside of it is the blackness of space.
You know, knowing that we only have one planet and it's incredibly vulnerable and out here is, is horrific. You know, it's, I think, I think it was definitely the totality of the experience for him.
Michael: After his flight on the New Shepard, Shatner published an essay in the British newspaper The Guardian.
"I thought I would experience a feeling of deep connection with the immensity around us,” he wrote. "A call to indeed boldly go where no one had gone before. But I had to get to space to realize that earth is, and will remain, our only home."
His point is that, despite what we might expect from decades of Star Trek, we shouldn't be searching out awe in distant solar systems. The best place to find it is right here, on this little rock that's our home.
And actually, that fact is a reason for hope.
Florence: have you become better at finding awe later in life?
Shatner: I'm probably more aware of awe now.
Everything's awesome. Everything’s awesome. Everything. Everybody has a story. It's awesome stories. Everything. Is awe. Even what will become of us is awe.
What will become of us?
I mean, Chesapeake Bay 20 years ago was polluted. You couldn't eat the food out of, you couldn't eat the what was ever what people were eating out of Chesapeake Bay 20 years ago, taken 20 years, and now it's as fecund as it always was.
Nature healed Chesapeake Bay in a blink of an eye. That's how the earth will heal itself.
Michael: That's William Shatner, speaking with Outside contributing editor Florence Williams.
Next week, we'll be back with a deeper dive into the science of awe, and you can read Florence's feature story about awe in Outside's July-August print edition.
This episode was scripted and produced by Robbie Carver, and edited by me, Michael Roberts. Robbie also composed the music.
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.