VAN HORN, Texas: Having made a career out of playing an explorer of the cosmos, William Shatner - Captain James Kirk of "Star Trek" fame - did it for real on Wednesday, becoming at age 90 the oldest person in space aboard a rocketship flown by billionaire Jeff Bezos's company Blue Origin, an experience the actor called profound.
Shatner was one of four passengers to journey for 10 minutes and 17 seconds to the edge of space aboard the white fully autonomous 18.3-metres-tall New Shepard spacecraft, which took off from Blue Origin's launch site about 32km outside the rural west Texas town of Van Horn.
The crew capsule returned to the Texas desert from the suborbital flight under parachutes, raising a cloud of dust. Shatner emerged gingerly from the capsule in the desert silence, appearing reflective as the others celebrated by cheering and popping champagne bottles.
Bezos was on hand and embraced Shatner, who was wearing a cap and a blue flight suit with the company's name in white letters on one sleeve.
"What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine," Shatner told Bezos as the two chatted for several minutes. "I am so filled with emotion about what just happened."
The all-civilian crew experienced a few minutes of weightlessness, having travelled about 106km above the Earth's surface - higher than the internationally recognised boundary of space known as the Karman Line, about 100km above Earth.
It marked the second space tourism flight for Blue Origin, the company Bezos - the Amazon.com founder and current executive chairman - founded two decades ago. Bezos flew aboard the first one in July.
Shatner - who embodied the promise of space travel in the classic 1960s TV series "Star Trek" and seven subsequent films - said he had prepared himself for experiencing weightlessness, but was stunned at the dramatic contrast of the beauty of the blue Earth and the blackness of space.
"You're looking into blackness, into black ugliness," Shatner said. "And you look down, there's the blue down there - and the black up there - and it's just, there is Mother Earth."
"This is life and that's death, and in an instant, you know - whoa - that's death," Shatner said. "That's what I saw."
"Is that the way death is?" Shatner asked.
Before the flight, each astronaut rang a bell and then entered the capsule atop the rocketship, with Bezos closing the hatch. Winds were light and skies were clear for the launch, conducted after two delays totaling roughly 45 minutes.
Joining Shatner were former NASA engineer Chris Boshuizen, clinical research entrepreneur Glen de Vries and Blue Origin vice president and engineer Audrey Powers.
'BEAM ME UP'
Shatner, who turned 90 in March, has been acting since the 1950s and remains busy with entertainment projects and fan conventions. He is best known for starring as Captain James Tiberius Kirk of the starship Enterprise on Star Trek.
During the opening credits of each episode of the series, he called space "the final frontier" and promised "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."
"Beam me up," Shatner's character would tell the Enterprise's chief engineer Scotty, played by James Doohan, in a memorable catchphrase when he needed to be transported to the starship.
Shatner's participation helped generate publicity for Blue Origin as it competes against two billionaire-backed rivals - Elon Musk's SpaceX and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc - to attract customers willing to pay large sums to experience spaceflight.
The flight represented another important day for the nascent space tourism industry that, according to UBS, could reach an annual value of US$3 billion in a decade.
Blue Origin had a successful debut space tourism flight on Jul 20, with Bezos and three others aboard on a trip lasting 10 minutes and 10 seconds. On that flight, pioneering female aviator Wally Funk at age 82 became the oldest person to reach space. The previous record was set in 1998 when pioneering astronaut John Glenn returned to space as a 77-year-old US senator.
Branson inaugurated his space tourism service on Jul 11, riding along on a suborbital flight with six others. SpaceX debuted its space tourism business by flying the first all-civilian crew to reach Earth's orbit in a three-day mission ending Sep 18.
In his annual address to world leaders last month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres criticised "billionaires joyriding to space while millions go hungry on earth".
Asked about Shatner's flight, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Wednesday that Guterres "very much continues to believe what he said in the General Assembly".