Shatner's flight was 'unbelievable.' Expand opportunity to truly democratize space travel. – USA TODAY

It’s hard not to pay attention to William Shatner going into space, at least for people like me. I am a Trekkie. As a young, Black girl, I hung onto Shatner’s every move as Captain Kirk. I indulged in the original “Star Trek” (and nearly every version that came after), fascinated by the possibilities of its quirky, campy science fiction becoming science fact. 
On Wednesday, as I watched the countdown to the launch of private company Blue Origin’s second civilian space flight, my overwhelming enthusiasm was slightly tempered by the daunting reality of inaccessibility. Blue Origin’s first civilian flight, which happened back in July, included a crew member who paid $28 million to get on board. Shatner’s expenses for this flight were comped
And I couldn’t help but recognize the irony of these moments.
The original “Star Trek” is remembered by so many people in my community for, among other things, how groundbreaking it was for its time. In the 1960s, it was one of the few mainstream television shows that starred a Black female (one who was going to pass on that role, by the way, until civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. told her to stick with it, she says). It featured the first interracial kiss on national television (between Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols). 
Yet Blue Origin’s work feels far removed from this kind of democratization of space flight – even while “increase access to space” is listed as part of its mission.
If the cost of admission is $28 million, few people will ever experience the “unbelievable” thrills that Shatner described after landing back on Earth. Little Black girls who are still watching shows like “Star Trek,” and dreaming about possibilities that span far beyond the reaches of our reality, will remain disproportionately locked out of opportunities.
How many chances will there be for Uhura’s place in science fiction to become science fact during this civilian space race that seems quick to prop up the likes of Shatner for sleek publicity, but slower to dig deep for the breakthrough moments of minority inclusion that Shatner’s show symbolized for millions of Americans?  
The crew for Wednesday’s flight included four people who are now touted by the company as “official astronauts,” all of whom were white, one of whom was female (and she works for Blue Origin).  
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SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, launched a civilian space flight last month. Its crew included Dr. Sian Proctor, a Black, female geoscientist who piloted the mission. She and other women like NASA pioneer Mae Jemison, America’s first Black female astronaut, are incredible inspirations.
The SpaceX mission was funded by Jared Isaacman, a man worth $2 billion, according to Forbes. 
To truly democratize space flight, more of those millions would be better spent on programs that work to educate kids in the sciences, especially young Black students who are severely underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), taking only 7% of the undergraduate degrees in these fields. 
Blue Origin’s Club for the Future seems like a start. It includes curricula and activities such as postcards to space (made by young students and carried during flights); engineering for space (taps the imagination and asks for prototypes of futuristic technology); and astro cup (which focuses on keeping noise levels low). 
The club’s site has a very moving video. In it, Jeff Bezos reads postcards that were created by students. I wonder how many of them came from young Black girls who, like me, dreamt of possibilities? 
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I reached out to Blue Origin to inquire about the money received for its space flights. I haven’t heard back. I’m also curious about the cost for future tickets and what programs that money supports. A competing civilian company has sold tickets for similar flights for as much as $450,000.  
We’re living at a time when COVID-19 has exacerbated America’s wealth gap in ways that have had deadly consequences. Minorities are being hit hard by the pandemic and dying at disproportionate rates.
And the poorest among us are still struggling to afford critical medications. 
I applaud Blue Origin’s work, and the vision of Jeff Bezos, who founded the company. In fact I stand in awe of it.
But the money spent on rocket development and seats for space flights puts a lie to the generally accepted claim that, collectively, the world’s billionaires don’t have the wealth to make a sizable dent in social problems such as homelessness, unequal access to education and health care. How many indigent Americans could be helped by the $28 million spent for a seat on a flight? How many underserved students could get a college education in physics, biology, engineering and other areas that would allow for contributions that may otherwise go untapped?  
As his voice broke, Shatner, near tears, described the feeling of space flight: “It was so moving to me. This experience is something unbelievable.”
A moment so fleeting seemed to broaden his perspective about life, death and the vulnerability of the human condition. 
“What you have given me is the most profound experience that I can imagine,” he said. “I am so filled with emotion. … It’s extraordinary.” He even stated that “everybody in the world needs to do this.”
Indeed. Profound, life-altering experiences like this often have the power to push people to think beyond their own circumstances and unify cultures. It’s a shame that certain folk will never have the opportunity to experience something this incredible – either through educational or monetary opportunity.
If Blue Origin truly wants to “increase access to space,” then shouldn’t a greater percentage of Americans have the chance to experience the same rush of emotions that Shatner did?   
The little girl I remember, the one who grew up hanging on Shatner’s every word, certainly understood the importance. I challenge Bezos, Musk and others to understand it, too, and widely open the doors of these missions for everyone to walk through. 
Eileen Rivers is projects editor for USA TODAY Opinion and a member of the Editorial Board. Follow her on Twitter: @msdc14
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