With 'Captain Kirk' aboard, Blue Origin to return to 'space, the final frontier'

VAN HORN, Texas, Oct 12 (Reuters) - Three months after billionaire U.S. businessman Jeff Bezos soared into space aboard a rocketship built by his Blue Origin company, the craft is set on Wednesday to take another all-civilian crew on a suborbital ride, this time with "Star Trek" actor William Shatner in the lead role.

As one of four passengers selected for the flight, Shatner, at age 90, is poised to become the oldest person ever to venture into space.

Shatner has become a pop culture mainstay for playing Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise in the classic 1960s television series and seven subsequent films. Shatner now gets to live out the mission he described during the opening credits of each episode of the series to explore "space - the final frontier."

"I'm going to see the vastness of space and the extraordinary miracle of our Earth and how fragile it is compared to the forces at work in the universe," Shatner told NBC's "Today" program. "I'm thrilled and anxious - and a little nervous and a little frightened - about this whole new adventure."

After a 24-hour wind-related postponement, Shatner and his fellow passengers on Wednesday are set to strap into Blue Origin's fully autonomous 60-foot-tall (18.3-meters-tall) New Shepard rocket, blasting off at 9 a.m. CDT (1000 EDT/1400 GMT) from a launch site outside the rural west Texas town of Van Horn on a journey to the edge of space.

The four crew members went through training on Tuesday and the mission team completed a flight-readiness evaluation to ensure "all systems are go for launch," Blue Origin said on Twitter.

"Forecasted winds at launch have subsided and weather currently looks good for Wednesday," Blue Origin added.

The launch represents another crucial test of Blue Origin's technology as the company competes against billionaire-backed rivals - Elon Musk's SpaceX and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc (SPCE.N) - to attract customers willing to pay large amounts of money to experience the exhilaration of spaceflight.

Wednesday's flight is expected to roughly follow the duration and path of Blue Origin's inaugural commercial trip on July 20 when Bezos, founder of ecommerce powerhouse Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O), and three other passengers took a suborbital flight lasting just over 10 minutes.

The New Shepard vehicle carried the foursome 66.5 miles (107 km) above the Earth, giving its passengers a few minutes of weightlessness, before the crew capsule parachuted safely back to the floor of the Texas desert. On that flight, pioneering female aviator Wally Funk at age 82 became the oldest person to reach space.

The three other crew members joining Shatner include: Chris Boshuizen, a former NASA engineer; Glen de Vries, a clinical research entrepreneur; and Audrey Powers, a Blue Origin vice president and engineer.

The company did not disclose how much any of the passengers had paid or whether any had been allowed to fly for free, though Shatner said Blue Origin approached him about taking the flight.

The launch comes less than two weeks after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it will review safety concerns raised by former and current Blue Origin employees who asserted that the company was prioritizing speed and cost savings over quality control and adequate staffing.

Blue Origin, founded by Bezos in 2000, promised to investigate any claims of misconduct and defended its safety record, calling New Shepard "the safest space vehicle ever designed or built."

Branson inaugurated his space tourism service on July 11, riding along on a suborbital flight with six others aboard his company's VSS Unity rocket plane.

The most established industry player is SpaceX, the company founded in 2002 by Musk, CEO of electric vehicle maker Tesla Inc (TSLA.O). SpaceX has launched numerous astronauts and cargo payloads to the orbiting International Space Station for NASA.

SpaceX debuted its space tourism business by flying the first all-civilian crew to reach Earth's orbit in a three-day flight ending Sept. 18.

Reporting by Mike Blake; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Eric M. Johnson in Seattle and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Will Dunham

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Mike Blake is a senior photographer with Reuters and a member of the Pulitzer Prize winning team for Breaking News Photography in 2019. He began his career with Reuters in Toronto, Canada in 1985 and has traveled the World covering Olympic Games (18 in total) and World sporting events as well as breaking news and feature stories. Previously based in Vancouver and now Los Angeles, Blake attended Emily Carr College of Art and began his career making prints at a major daily newspaper. Blake grew up skateboarding and taking pictures and continues to do so now in his spare time.