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Universe Today

A bit of Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols will fly to deep space

Nichelle Nichols, who blazed a trail for Black actors as Lieutenant Uhura on the original “Star Trek,” never got to go to space while she was alive — but her ashes and her DNA are due to reach the final frontier as early as this year.

The symbolic samples are scheduled to fly beyond the moon, along with the ashes of other dearly departed Star Trek pioneers such as James Doohan (“Scotty”); Majel Barrett Roddenberry (“Nurse Chapel”); the TV series’ creator, Gene Roddenberry; and visual-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull.

To top it all off, Nichols’ memorial journey will begin with the launch of a Vulcan rocket. “I’m sure she would have much preferred to go on the shuttle,” said her son, Kyle Johnson, “but this was a pretty close second.”

The “Enterprise” memorial mission is being organized by Houston-based Celestis, which has been making arrangements to fly its customers’ cremated remains for a quarter-century. A gram of Nichols’ ashes, plus DNA samples taken from her and from Johnson, will be among the secondary payloads for United Launch Alliance’s first Vulcan Centaur mission, set for no earlier than December.

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Fiction Science Club

Star Trek keeps up to date with science — and society

Over the course of five decades, advances in space science and exploration have changed the Star Trek saga — but it’s obvious that the sci-fi TV show has changed the course of space exploration as well.

You need look no further than Amazon’s billionaire founder Jeff Bezos, who took inspiration from Star Trek to green-light talking computers and his very own Blue Origin space effort. The same goes for SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who’s mentioned in the same breath as the Wright Brothers in a “Star Trek: Discovery” episode.

“I can’t imagine a version of the world where Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos exist, for better or worse, however you feel about them, without Star Trek,” says Ryan Britt, the author of “Phasers on Stun,” a new book chronicling the history of the Star Trek sci-fi franchise.

“I’m not saying that those guys embody all of Star Trek’s ideals, because they may not,” Britt says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “But there is an audacity to space travel, whether it is from a government like NASA or another nation’s government that’s putting people in space, or if it’s from the private sector.”

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GeekWire

Comedian Pete Davidson gets his space trip confirmed

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has confirmed that “Saturday Night Live” comedian Pete Davidson will be going to space next week, less than a year after he portrayed a hapless Mars astronaut on NBC’s late-night sketch show.

Bezos won’t be accompanying Davidson, even though that was the impression given by some of last week’s gossip about the flight. Instead, five paying passengers will be riding alongside the 28-year-old actor, who co-wrote and starred in a semi-autobiographical movie titled “The King of Staten Island” in 2020.

The other five spacefliers listed in today’s announcement are:

  • Marty Allen, an angel investor and the former CEO of Party America and California Closet Company, among other ventures.
  • Marc Hagle, the president and CEO of Tricor International, a residential and commercial property development corporation.
  • Sharon Hagle, the founder of SpaceKids Global, a nonprofit organization focusing on STEAM+ education, with a special emphasis on empowering girls. SpaceKids participates in the Postcards to Space program led by the Club for the Future, Blue Origin’s educational foundation. Marc and Sharon Hagle are husband and wife.
  • Jim Kitchen, a teacher, entrepreneur and explorer who has served on the faculty of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School since 2010.
  • George Nield, a former associate administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation who is now the president of Commercial Space Technologies.

Blue Origin said Davidson would be getting a free flight as the company’s guest. The company declined to say how much the other fliers would be paying for their trips.

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Fiction Science Club

Get a way-out reality check on dreams of leaving Earth

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wants to have millions of people living and working in space — that’s why he founded his Blue Origin space venture more than two decades ago. But what if living in space turns out to be like holing up in an Amazon warehouse?

“The reality of going to another planet in our current environment, I think … the best analogy is an Amazon fulfillment center,” Taylor Genovese, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, says in “Last Exit: Space,” a new documentary about space settlement narrated by famed filmmaker Werner Herzog.

“You won’t be able to actually see where you are,” Genovese explains. “You’re going to be inside of a factory, and you’re not going to experience what you think you’re going to be experiencing — that is, the kind of awe of being on another planet and experiencing being off Earth. No, you’re going to be working inside of a cubicle.”

That’s a perspective you won’t often hear in the wave of space documentaries flowing through streaming-video outlets, including “Countdown” and “Return to Space” on Netflix, and “Secrets of the Universe” on Curiosity Stream.

But Rudolph Herzog — Werner’s son and the director of “Last Exit: Space,” now playing on Discovery+ — wasn’t that interested in doing a conventional documentary about the final frontier.

“I just like the edgy, quirky stories,” the younger Herzog, who’s built up his own portfolio of film projects, explains in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “I think everybody knows about Elon Musk, and everybody knows what Jeff Bezos is up to. … I just wanted to show the incredible lengths people will go to, to live this dream of going to space.”

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GeekWire

‘SNL’ comedian is reportedly up for a space ride

Comedian Pete Davidson co-starred with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk last year in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch about a slacker astronaut named Chad, but it sounds as if Davidson could soon go into space for real — courtesy of Musk’s rival space billionaire, Jeff Bezos.

According to the New York Post’s Page Six gossip column, Davidson is close to signing up for a suborbital space trip on the New Shepard rocket ship built by Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

“Pete is excited,” according to an unnamed Page Six source said to be familiar with Davidson’s plans. “They haven’t signed a contract yet, but it looks like it’s going to happen. The details are being finalized.”

Blue Origin, which is based in Kent, Wash., launched three crewed suborbital space missions from its West Texas spaceport last year and is reportedly keen to pick up the pace this year. Page Six quoted its source as saying the timing for Davidson’s flight is still up in the air.

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GeekWire

‘Downfall’ recounts 737 MAX mess as a tech tragedy

The missteps traced in “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” — Netflix’s new documentary about Boeing’s troubled 737 MAX jet — are the stuff of Greek tragedy.

Under the direction of filmmaker Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of Robert F. Kennedy, “Downfall” recounts how the aerospace giant cut corners in a race to compete against Airbus, and pressed mightily to minimize the known problems with a computerized flight control system that was capable of causing the 737 MAX to go into a fatal dive.

The result? Not just one, but two catastrophic crashes — first in Indonesia, in 2018, and only months later in Ethiopia. The combined death toll amounted to 346 people. The jets were grounded for nearly two years while Boeing worked on a fix to the control system.

When the Indonesian crash occurred, the root cause seemed to be shrouded in uncertainty. But subsequent investigations showed that Boeing knew the cause had to do with tweaks in an automated software routine known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS.

In the early stages of those investigations, I struggled to explain what MCAS was supposed to do (keep planes from stalling under extreme conditions) and what it ended up doing (forcing planes into a dive). “Downfall” uses graphics and re-enactments to show how MCAS and other points of failure on the 737 MAX figured in the tragedy.

The film also lays out evidence from emails and other documents showing that when the 737 MAX was undergoing certification for flight, Boeing was desperate to avoid providing pilots with extra training, at extra cost — so desperate that the company hid the MCAS software’s capabilities from pilots, airlines and regulators.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin confirms Star Trek captain’s space trip

It’s official: Star Trek actor William Shatner is due to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship next week, becoming the oldest person to go into space at the age of 90.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ space venture made the announcement this morning, confirming a report published by the TMZ celebrity news site 10 days earlier.

“I’ve heard about space for a long time now. I’m taking the opportunity to see it for myself. What a miracle,” Shatner said in the news release.

Blue Origin’s vice president of mission and flight operations, Audrey Powers, will also be on board for New Shepard’s launch. That rounds out a crew of four that also includes tech entrepreneurs Chris Boshuizen and Glen de Vries, whose names came to light last week.

Next week’s countdown and launch will be live-streamed via Blue Origin’s website, starting at the T-minus-90-minute mark. Liftoff from Launch Site One in West Texas is currently set for 8:30 a.m. CT (6:30 a.m. PT) Oct. 12.

This will be Blue Origin’s second crewed suborbital spaceflight, following up on the trip that Bezos and three other fliers took in July.

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GeekWire

Late-night TV skit skewers space billionaires

You know that the billionaire space race has entered the nation’s mainstream when it’s skewered by NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

On tonight’s season premiere, guest host Owen Wilson played the starring role in “Star Trek: Ego Quest” as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who in July took a suborbital space ride on the New Shepard rocket built by his own Blue Origin space venture.

SNL’s writers even went so far as to write Wilson’s brother, fellow actor Luke Wilson, into the script as Mark Bezos (credited in the opening titles as “First Mate Jeff Bezos’ Brother, Whose Name Escapes Me”). Other prime-time players portrayed the Bezos brothers’ companions in what it called a “crew of random weirdos,” including Dutch student Oliver Daemen (“Science Officer Rich Kid From the Netherlands”) and 82-year-old aviation pioneer Wally Funk.

“Their mission: to just sort of fly around space, goofing off, in a ship that looks like a penis,” the narrator intones.

Naturally, Bezos and his crew get into a drag race with Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, who in real life went on his own suborbital space journey on SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity just nine days before Bezos’ flight. The narrator calls it “A Midlife Crisis of Cosmic Proportions.”

But the race ends up going to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (played by Mikey Day), who blasts Bezos’ craft with photon torpedoes. “Space is only big enough for one weird white billionaire,” Musk says. “So you could say beating you is my … Prime objective.” (Or should that be “Prime Directive”?)

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GeekWire

TMZ says Star Trek’s William Shatner will go to space

The next crewed suborbital spaceflight planned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture — which could launch as early as next month — is due to carry Star Trek captain William Shatner, according to the TMZ celebrity news site.

If the report based on unnamed sources is true, that would make Shatner the oldest person to fly in space at the age of 90, besting the record set by 82-year-old aviation pioneer Wally Funk during July’s first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spacecraft.

Shatner played Captain James T. Kirk in the original “Star Trek” series and in a series of movies. That gives him at least one thing in common with Bezos. The world’s richest individual also played a part in a Star Trek production: a cameo as an alien Starfleet officer that lasted several seconds in the movie “Star Trek Beyond.”

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Cosmic Space

Discovery unveils reality TV contest for space trip

More than 20 years after TV executives first floated the idea of doing a “Survivor”-style series with a trip to space as the reward, it looks as if such a show might actually happen as early as next year.

The eight-part series’ working title is “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?” It’s slated to air on the Discovery TV channel, with bonus content on the Science Channel and the discovery+ streaming service.

Discovery put out the casting call today, and you can sign up to vie for a spot on the show — that is, assuming that you’re a U.S. citizen who’s 18 or older and in good enough shape to endure the rigors of spaceflight. Applicants will have to answer a questionnaire and submit photos and a short video as part of the screening process. If you go on to the next stage, you’ll have to undergo a background check as well as psychological and physical exams.

Contestants will be put through astronaut-style training and a variety of extreme challenges. In the end, expert judges will select one candidate to take a ride on a SpaceX Crew Dragon and spend eight days on the International Space Station as part of an Axiom Space mission.

Houston-based Axiom Space recently sealed the deal with NASA for its first private astronaut mission, known as Ax-1, and Discovery says it expects the reality-TV trip to be part of Ax-2.