RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Captain Kirk, otherwise known as William Shatner, is scheduled to blast off tomorrow on a quick trip to the edge of space and back. He'll board Blue Origin, the space company founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos. But who gets to fly to space and why? NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has the story.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The first space travelers had to have the right stuff. They were military pilots. But when NASA's space shuttles began flying in the 1980s, all kinds of VIPs started lobbying to go as passengers. A task force decided that flying a non-astronaut would be OK for public education purposes, so in 1984, President Ronald Reagan said he was directing NASA...
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RONALD REAGAN: ...To choose, as the first citizen passenger in the history of our space program, one of America's finest - a teacher.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA created a citizens-in-space program. It was managed by Alan Ladwig. He remembers going on David Letterman's show to talk about it.
ALAN LADWIG: And I said the first spaceflight participant program would be the teacher. Well, the very next day when I got back to D.C., I read The Washington Post - Jake Garn's flying in space.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Who was Jake Garn? A senator who chaired the subcommittee that oversaw NASA's budget. He got NASA to fly him on the space shuttle, as did another member of Congress, Bill Nelson, who now leads NASA. Both went up before the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. That accident killed the whole crew, including the teacher - Christa McAuliffe.
LADWIG: There was some criticism out of Congress, some media that - well, this just shows space is too dangerous for an ordinary citizen.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Ladwig says NASA canceled a planned journalist-in-space program, and after that, it only flew professional astronauts - well, except for John Glenn. He was a former astronaut, the first American to ever orbit the Earth. At the age of 77, when he said he wanted to fly again, NASA made an exception.
LADWIG: I mean, the media turned out in droves for that mission. The public loved it. He's a national hero, was a national hero.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: For people who weren't astronauts or national heroes, the only option for years was paying millions of dollars to Russia. Its space agency sold trips to space stations to a TV journalist from Japan, a bunch of businessmen turned space tourists and, just last week, an actress and movie director. Now, though, Russia has competition from U.S. companies. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin both offer short flights that have minutes of weightlessness, and SpaceX has a capsule that can orbit the planet for days. In recent months, these firms have taken a motley assortment of people to space, what "Saturday Night Live" called random weirdos.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) First mate, Jeff Bezos' brother, whose name escapes me. Science officer, some rich high school kid from the Netherlands.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And 82-year-old astronaut Wally Funk.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Just days after this "Star Trek"-themed parody aired, Blue Origin announced it was taking up "Star Trek" actor William Shatner. The 90-year-old will be the oldest person to reach space. He's reportedly going as the company's guest.
JOE CZABOVSKY: I do think it's classic marketing.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Joe Czabovsky is an associate professor of public relations and marketing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He says when a new product makes a splash like the first Blue Origin flight did this summer, companies have to figure out how to keep the public's attention.
CZABOVSKY: William Shatner makes sense in that - here's a celebrity that made their claim to fame on, like, traveling space. And it's, like, a one-time, kind of kitschy branding opportunity.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he says even though celebrities get headlines, this runs the risk of just reinforcing a perception that's already out there - that spaceflight is just for the famous or ultrawealthy. One seat on Blue Origin's flight was auctioned off for $28 million. Czabovsky thinks it's in the long-term interest of space companies to make sure their flights also incorporate scientists and people who don't have deep pockets.
CZABOVSKY: So that it builds up that kind of public interest, that public support for scientific growth in space for everyone.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: A recent poll he worked on found that about 80% of U.S. residents saw the recent launches as billionaire ego trips. But nonetheless, they generally felt positive about space travel's potential for humanity, and more than half said the flights made them believe that one day soon, ordinary people will be able to go to space.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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