William Shatner, 90, who played iconic role of Captain Kirk on ‘Star Trek’ will make a real trek to outer space

New Shepard NS-14 lifts off from Launch Site One in West Texas on January 14, 2021.
New Shepard NS-14 lifts off from Launch Site One in West Texas on January 14, 2021.

Where does space begin? Does it begin when you look up, and the sky goes from blue to dark and speckled with stars? What about when you just go so high enough that you float, like you see with astronauts on the space station?

This is a question a lot of space nerds — and, apparently, Jeff Bezos’ team at Blue Origin — care a lot about.

But there is no single definition of “outer space.” Current efforts to define where space begins is largely an exercise in pinpointing where the Earth’s atmosphere becomes less troublesome than the Earth’s gravitational pull, and there is no exact altitude where that happens. The atmosphere thins out, but the “vacuum of space” is never really devoid of matter. Basically, it’s a blurry line.

Quick reminder: Experiencing zero gravity has nothing to do with altitude – or at least, not at the relatively low altitude Shatner will be going to. The Earth’s gravitational pull will still very much be tugging on the Blue Origin capsule when it reaches weightlessness at “apogee” — the term in spaceflight for the very top of a flight path.  

The astronauts will be weightless because the energy the rocket and capsule drummed up on the way up is being canceled out by the Earth’s gravity, giving them a very extreme version of the sensation you experience when you reach the very peak of a big roller coaster hill.   

Richard Branson’s flight aboard the space plane developed by his space company, Virgin Galactic, in July reached more than 50 miles high, which is the altitude the US government considers the beginning of outer space.

Blue Origin’s flights hit more than 62 miles high — also known as the Kármán line — which is the altitude internationally recognized as the boundary.

Exactly which is correct — the US-accepted 50-mile mark or the internationally recognized 62-mile Kármán line — is widely debated and mostly arbitrary.

Still, Blue Origin is known to attack its competitor over the discrepancy, alleging that Virgin Galactic will make passengers into astronauts “with an asterisk.”

But here’s the thing: When we say the international community “recognizes” or “accepts” the 62-mile Kármán line as the edge of space, we’re mostly talking about one organization, the the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, which keeps track of world records in spaceflight such as tallying how many people have become astronauts.

But even the FAI has said it’s considered changing its definition to the US-recognized 50-mile mark in response to research from Jonathan McDowell with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which argues that satellites can orbit lower than 62 miles and even the original definition of the Kármán line wasn’t that high.

As for whether or not Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic customers will be considered “astronauts” by the US government — and earn a pair of coveted astronaut wings — is a different matter entirely. (Most of them won’t.)

It should also be noted that neither Virgin Galactic nor Blue Origin is sending passengers to orbit, as SpaceX has done. (And even orbital space tourists aren’t guaranteed official astronaut wings.)

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