Mack Williams column: Remembering Shatner’s ride

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 28, 2022

By Mack Williams

Just the other day, I saw the William Shatner Medicare supplement TV commercial for the umpteenth time. You know, the one where Joe Namath, William Shatner and Jimmy Walker seem to trade places (several times within one hour), but say the exact same thing about getting money back on your Social Security check. Sometimes think I’d prefer Ice-T’s car repair insurance.

Seeing Shatner on TV again, I thought back to last year when I watched his real-life space trip in which the set design consisted of actual rocket, earth, sky and space.

In 1961, I was a little boy excited about the then, up-and-coming sub-orbital space voyage of a man in his prime: Alan Shepard (“Freedom 7”). Last October, I was a senior man watching the sub-orbital space voyage of another senior man: William Shatner (Blue Origins “New Shepard-18”).

From the prelude, Shatner’s launch was different than NASA in the 1960s. These control room technicians were more casually dressed, not wearing white shirts and ties. They also weren’t wearing the obligatory NASA Control Room shirt pen protector for protection from the ink of multiple pens in the shirt pocket. My early-on friends, Larry Williams and Steve McCombs, both wore ink pens with shirt protectors in their young “space days” before going on to later become physicians, where that item also surely came in handy.

I was amazed at how space travel seemed to have gotten simpler in some ways. Those Blue Origins’ space travelers were driven in SUVs to the launch pad, much in the same way as we might drop off relatives or friends at the train station or airport.

It all seemed so much simpler than those “Jules-Bergman-ABC Science Editor” narratives of my youth. Bergman had a rich, sonorous voice like Carl Sagan, and I bet he would have liked to have said “Billions and billions,” but I don’t ever recall him doing so.

Back then, the jobs of the white-suited workers securing the astronaut in the space vehicle were described in detail; but with Shatner and company, there was only slight mention of the one person whose job it was to be the “official-astronaut-strapper-inner.”

Everything, even with the launch pad holds, went incredibly quickly with Blue Origins. I seem to remember that on May 5, 1961, at Granite Quarry School, it took till late morning for us to hear word of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight having gone well. Our Principal, Mr. C.L. Barnhardt put the radio news over the intercom.

After “New-Shepard-18” returned, William Shatner made a wondrous statement about his space trip, to the effect that life, represented by the relative thinness of Earth’s blue, life-giving atmosphere gives way quickly to a region of death, represented by the black night of space.

I thought about Shatner’s wonderful words one recent afternoon just after moonrise, when I looked up at the moon’s flat, dry, dark, dead seas (maria) and its bright, cratered highlands.

Yes, on “this end of the sky,” space’s stark contrast between light and shadow is smoothed over by an aqua-blue, tenuous mist, the breathing of which, keeps life alive.

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