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After decades of exploring the final frontier on screen, "Star Trek" actor William Shatner became the oldest person to reach space in a 10-minute flight Wednesday that moved him to tears.
"I am overwhelmed," Shatner, 90, said once back on Earth. Clad in a blue flight suit and a black baseball cap, he took a pensive pause to digest the experience aboard the Blue Origin flight. "It has to do with the enormity and the quickness and the suddenness of life and death, and oh, my God."
He wiped his eyes.
The Canadian actor rocketed through the atmosphere as a guest of Blue Origin, the private space company founded by Jeff Bezos.
As Bezos sprayed celebratory champagne into the air and greeted the returning crew members, Shatner stood apart from his fellow travelers and the assembled crowd of friends, family and Blue Origin employees. He then described his journey to Bezos, calling the sky "this comforter of blue that we have around us" that whips by before the blackness of space.
The contrast conjured questions of life and death, or life beyond Earth, for Shatner, best known for exploring space as Capt. James T. Kirk in the original "Star Trek" TV series and movies.
As captain of the Starship Enterprise, Kirk and his crew traveled the universe, explored space — the final frontier — and engaged in space diplomacy as well as battles.
"It's just, there is mother and Earth and comfort and there is ... Is there, death?" Shatner asked. "Is that the way death is? Whip and it's gone?"
He later grabbed Bezos by the shoulders, staring him straight in the eyes.
"You have done something," Shatner said. "What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine."
Earlier, as the Blue Origin capsule floated back to the launch site, Shatner could be heard saying on in-capsule audio: "That was unlike anything they described."
"I’ve heard about space for a long time now," Shatner said in a statement in the days before the launch. "I’m taking the opportunity to see it for myself."
The actor was part of a four-person crew who lifted off Wednesday, around 7:50 a.m. Pacific time, from Blue Origin's launch site near Van Horn, Texas. Inside the so-called New Shepard capsule, they experienced a few minutes of weightlessness in suborbital space before coming back down to Earth.
Shatner joined Blue Origin's vice president of mission and flight operations, Audrey Powers; Chris Boshuizen, who co-founded small-satellite company Planet; and software executive Glen de Vries.
Boshuizen and De Vries were the only paying passengers aboard the flight.
Shatner broke the Guinness World Record for the oldest person to fly to space, which was set this summer by Wally Funk, an aviation pioneer.
Funk flew at the age of 82 on Blue Origin's first crewed flight to suborbital space, which also carried Bezos, his brother Mark and Oliver Daemen, the son of a Dutch private equity executive and Blue Origin's first paying customer.
Before Wednesday's liftoff, the Blue Origin capsule communicator read out messages from that first crew to the individuals strapped into the spacecraft.
"I hope this flight will be the most fantastic experience of your life as it was mine," Funk said in her message.
The Blue Origin flight comes after a group of current and former company employees published a letter raising safety concerns about the company's spaceflights and accusing the company of fostering a sexist and toxic work environment.
In the letter, 21 current and former employees say company culture prioritized speed and cost reduction over quality.
Blue Origin said in a statement that it had "no tolerance" for discrimination or harassment and stands by its safety record. It called New Shepard the "safest space vehicle ever designed or built."
The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that the agency "takes every safety allegation seriously," and that it is "reviewing the information."
British billionaire Richard Branson also flew to suborbital space on his company Virgin Galactic's space plane in July, sparking criticism that the space tourism missions by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic were exclusive joy rides for the ultra-wealthy.
The companies have touted the opportunity for research to be done in suborbital space.
Critics say the billionaires should use their wealth to improve life on Earth, rather than rocketing themselves to suborbital space.
Analysts say the suborbital space tourism market is unlikely to drastically decrease its customer prices anytime soon. Virgin Galactic, for example, recently reopened its ticket sales for $450,000 a seat.
And as the market grows, high-profile customers such as Shatner are key to attracting new customers, said Phil Smith, senior space analyst at space analytics and engineering firm BryceTech.
"That cool factor is going to help generate a buzz," he said. "William Shatner has been in our living rooms and theaters for so long, and he’s familiar to folks. [His character] represents to a lot of people a hopeful message about our future in space."
Today, Shatner is the host and executive producer of the History Channel show "The UnXplained," which is from the producers of "Ancient Aliens" and delves into mysterious topics, including Bigfoot, plane vanishings and the moon.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.