When Star Trek first aired in 1966, America was still three years away from putting people on the Moon and the idea that people could one day live and work in space seemed like a fantasy.
On October 12, William Shatner—Captain James T. Kirk to Trekkies—is set to become the first member of the iconic show’s cast to journey to the final frontier, as a guest aboard a Blue Origin suborbital rocket.
For fans, the 10-minute hop from a West Texas base back to Earth will be a fitting coda for a pop culture phenomenon that inspired generations of astronauts.
“I plan to be looking out the window with my nose pressed against the window, the only thing that I don’t want to see is a little gremlin looking back at me,” the 90-year-old Canadian, who will become the oldest person ever to go to space, joked in a video release.
Blue Origin’s decision to invite one of the most recognizable galaxy-faring characters from science fiction for its second crewed flight has helped maintain excitement around the nascent space tourism sector, as the novelty starts to wear off.
This summer saw flamboyant British entrepreneur Richard Branson fly just beyond the atmosphere in a Virgin Galactic vessel on July 9, beating the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos by a few days in their battle of the billionaire space barons.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX sent four private astronauts to orbit the Earth for three days as part of the Inspiration4 mission in September, which raised more than $200 million for charity.
“Bringing on a celebrity like William Shatner, who’s related to space, brings a kind of renewed novelty, and creates media and cultural attention,” Joe Czabovsky, an expert in public relations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told AFP.
The original Star Trek was canceled after only three seasons, but went on to spawn more than a dozen movies and several spin-off series, including some that are ongoing.
Shatner, as the plucky and decisive Kirk, commanded the USS Enterprise on a five-year-mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
His actual voyage to space will be far shorter, taking the crew just beyond the Karman line, 62 miles (100 kilometers) high, where they will experience four minutes of weightlessness and gaze out at the curvature of the planet.
He will be joined by Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s vice president of mission and flight operations, Planet Labs co-founder Chris Boshuizen, and Glen de Vries, a co-founder of clinical research platform Medidata Solutions.
Star Trek turned American attention to the stars as the US space program was in its offing, landing a man on the Moon towards the end of its run in 1969.
It broke ground by tackling complicated moral questions, and was notable for its diverse cast at a time when the country was struggling through the Civil Rights era.
The Enterprise crew included an Asian-American helmsman, a half-human half-Vulcan science officer, and a Russian-born ensign.
Shatner made history in 1968 when he kissed Black co-star Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, in the first interracial kiss on American television.
The show is also closely intertwined with the US space program.
In 1976 the first Space Shuttle was named “Enterprise” following a letter writing campaign by fans that swayed then-president Gerald Ford.
NASA hired Nichols in the 1970s to help recruit new astronauts, and numerous other cast members have voiced official documentaries or given talks for the agency.
Astronauts have returned the favor, posing in Star Trek uniforms for mission-related posters and embracing the show’s motifs.
“For 50 years, Star Trek has inspired generations of scientists, engineers, and even astronauts,” NASA astronaut Victor Glover said in a 2016 video that drew parallels between research on the Enterprise and the scientific instruments on the ISS today.
Another mega-fan: Bezos himself.
Amazon’s Alexa was said to be inspired by the conversational computer in Star Trek, and Bezos—wearing heavy makeup sporting an egg-shaped head—appeared in a cameo in the 2016 film “Star Trek Beyond.”
Shatner’s star power and wit—he joked to CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the New Shepard rocket, which has been mocked for its phallic appearance, was in fact “inseminating the space program”—could provide a welcome distraction for Blue Origin.
The company is under a cloud of allegations, made by a former senior employee, about a “toxic” work culture with rampant sexual harassment and decision making that prioritized speed over safety.
Blue Origin denied the claims and said the employee was sacked two years ago for issues involving US export control regulations.
Two days before the storm began, Houston’s chief elected official warned her constituents to prepare as they would for a major hurricane. Many took heed: Texans who could stocked up on food and water, while nonprofits and government agencies set out to help those who couldn’t.
But few foresaw the fiasco that was to come. They could not be prepared.
As temperatures plunged and snow and ice whipped the state, much of Texas’ power grid collapsed, followed by its water systems. Tens of millions huddled in frigid homes that slowly grew colder or fled for safety. And a prideful state, long suspicious of regulation and outside help, was left to seek aid from other states and humanitarian groups as many of its 29 million people grasped for survival.
Images of desperate Texans circulated worldwide. To some, they evoked comparisons to a less wealthy or self-regarding place. To others, they laid bare problems that have long festered.
A week after she warned her county’s nearly 5 million residents about the impending storm, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo was sleeping on an air mattress at the county’s emergency operations center. Her home had been without power for three nights.
“It’s worth asking the question: Who set up this system and who perpetuated it knowing that the right regulation was not in place?” Hidalgo said.
Around 2 a.m. Monday, the full measure of the crisis Texas faced began to be apparent.
Cold and ice had set in the day before, leading to spreading power outages across the state. But standing in the emergency operations center early Monday, Hidalgo and others learned that their local energy provider, CenterPoint Energy, would not be able to “roll” outages between homes as they had been told earlier.
Instead of short intervals of heat, enough to keep their homes safe, residents would have to go without for days on end.
Power outages spiraled through the day Monday, ultimately cutting off more than 4 million people. Grocery stores shut down and hotel rates skyrocketed.
People who fled to the homes of relatives or neighbors had to consider the risks of contracting or spreading coronavirus.
Ashley Archer and her husband decided to take in his best friend at their suburban Dallas home. She is pregnant and has been trying to protect herself from the virus for nearly a year.
The friend is “like family,” she said. “We weren’t going to let him freeze at his place.”
Things got worse Tuesday. Thousands of people sought refuge from their freezing homes in warming shelters. Others sat in their cars; dozens were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning. A woman and her daughter died after running their car inside a garage.
At her Dallas condominium, 51-year-old Stephanie Murdoch layered in blankets, two pairs of pants, two sweaters, three pairs of socks, a hat, and gloves. Her anger grew at the power companies and their apparent lack of preparation.
“We’ve got another blast of snow coming in this evening … and still no clear answers as to why the grids aren’t working better,” she said.
By Wednesday, some started to get their power back, but a new shortage emerged—drinkable water.
Frozen pipes burst across the state. And the water that did come out of taps was often undrinkable due to dangerously low water pressure levels. At one point, an estimated 13 million people were under a boil-water order, nearly half of Texas’ population.
More than 35 people in Texas have been confirmed dead. That number was expected to rise as roads cleared and relatives and first responders could check on missing loved ones.
Mark Henry, Galveston County’s judge, asked the state early in the week to send a refrigerated truck requested by the local medical examiner, who expected an influx of bodies.
“If they had been honest with us from the beginning, we would have ordered evacuations. But they didn’t tell us that,” he said.
The disaster can be traced to mistakes by Texas’ leadership and faults created by decades of opposition to more regulations and preparation.
Basically, the state is an island in the U.S. electrical system.
There is one large grid covering the Eastern half of the country, another for the West, with Texas wedged between them. There is a long and colorful history to how this came to be, but the simplest explanation is that Texas utilities wanted to be free of federal regulation. They accomplished that, going back to the middle of the last century, by avoiding sending power across state lines.
The Texas grid isn’t walled off, but there are only a few, small interconnection points with the Eastern U.S. grid and Mexico. In the past, utility executives have argued that the Texas grid would be less reliable and more vulnerable to blackouts if it were fully connected to the rest of the country – which would make it easier for other states to tap Texas during their own shortages.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, was created in 1970; it became a more powerful broker over electricity flows after deregulation in this century. In the wake of the storm, it has taken most of the blame from Texas politicians and the public.
Despite efforts by some Republicans to blame clean energy, the failures occurred in every part of the sector. While wind turbines and solar panels froze, a major nuclear plant lost half of its generation, and there were massive failures in coal, oil, and natural gas. Demand surged, meanwhile, as people accustomed to mild Texas winters turned on their heat.
In 2011, millions of Texans lost power during the Super Bowl, which was played in a Dallas suburb. Two agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, conducted a study on how Texas could “winterize” its energy infrastructure. At the highest end, winterizing 50,000 gas wells would cost an estimated $1.75 billion, the study found.
Of the 2011 storm, the report said generators and natural gas producers said they had “winterization procedures in place. However, the poor performance of many of these generating units and wells suggests that these procedures were either inadequate or were not adequately followed.”
But there was no broad move to winterize equipment. Since then, bills requiring energy producers to hold more power in reserve or ordering a study of how to better prepare for winter failed in the Republican-controlled Texas House.
Texas lawmakers deregulated the energy market in 2002. Supporters say this lowered energy prices statewide, but critics say it gave producers leeway to avoid improvements that might have prevented events like this week’s catastrophe.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has promised multiple investigations of this storm and made ERCOT an “emergency” item for the legislature, which is currently in its biennial session.
“I think there is going to have to be a serious inquiry into why it was, what were the factors that led the grid not to be able to meet the energy needs of Texas,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
Cruz spoke Thursday evening in the yard of his home in Houston’s wealthiest neighborhood, River Oaks. He had cut short a trip to Cancun, Mexico, after images circulated of him waiting at a Houston airport for his flight to the resort town.
At week’s end, as the cold weather began to loosen its grip, the power grid came back online for most Texans. But burst pipes had flooded thousands of homes. Earlier in the week, Abbott had asked plumbers from other states to come to Texas and help.
But fixing pipes is one thing. Fixing a whole state is another.
Power failure: How a winter storm pushed Texas into crisis (2021, February 21)
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