The Legacy of Star Trek

Thisweekend I met the aliens, and they spoke pretty good English. They wereKlingons.

Yes,bearded, bulky Klingons, sawtooth-eared Vulcans, grunting Romulans, andclean-cut graduates of Starfleet Academy had all amicably come together inSeattle's Science Fiction Museum for a three-day toast to Star Trek. This was a gathering of fans, drawing a few thousand Trekkies from around thecountry. But it had a novel twist: the usual crowd of Star Trek devoteesand show celebrities was leavened by a fistful of scientists. Real scientists;not just the play-acting kind.

Incrediblyit's been four decades since Federation Starship NCC-1701, better known as the Enterprise, first ignited its matter-antimatter engines and coasted into the darkspaces of the Galaxy to seek out new life. The crew members, packaged likesausage meat in stretch Lycra, were multicultural to the max; a noteworthyexception to the norm of 1960s television. Indeed, the Federation's H.R.Department was so committed to equal opportunity, it hired a non-Homosapiens as Science Officer. (This was no doubt an early acknowledgement ofthe poor state of American science literacy. By the 23rd century,we will apparently have to offshore science to other planets, such as Vulcan.)

Thescrappy, low-budget series, which was cancelled after three seasons, becameknown for its imposing repertoire of futuristic gadgetry. There were handheldcommunicators and tricorders; shipboard holodecks, giant view-screens, anddeadly phasers. Some people today have come to believe that Star Trek'screators possessed a crystal ball, simply because of the resemblance of some ofthis paraphernalia to contemporary, hi-tech hardware like cell phones andplasma TV's. Consequently, one reason that scientists were brought to Seattle was to offer opinion on the degree to which this science fiction had, indeed,inspired science fact.

The answerturned out to be "not very much." The most conspicuous reality check came fromMartin Cooper, the man credited with inventing the cell phone. Cooper pointedout that the development of portable phones was underway long before CaptainKirk ever flipped open his communicator. Most of the other Enterprisehardware remains either impractical or impossible.

But if GeneRoddenberry and the Star Trek writers weren't particularly prescientwhen it came to the technology, they were definitely out front when it came tosocial evolution. The Enterprise crew sported archetypes from aroundthe globe, and - get this - a black woman. In reality, Nichelle Nichols, whoplayed Lt. Uhura, the always-attentive Communications Officer (and obviously adedicated SETI researcher - constantly listening for alien signals), nearlyquit the series because of behind-the-scenes harassment. Martin Luther Kingurged her to tough it out however, and Nichols became an inspiration, and latera friend, to Mae Jamison: the first black, female Shuttle astronaut. It'sworth remembering that at the time the original series aired, multiculturalismwas hardly a national passion.

So it was amajor social innovation to suggest that only a few centuries hence, everyone -irrespective of race, gender or ear morphology - would qualify for such plumjobs as zapping hostile aliens. But there's another important component of the StarTrek legacy: something that continues to shape our attitudes to rocketingbeyond our world. Star Trek re-defined space.

ConsiderEurope five centuries ago, when the "final frontier" was the ocean that lapped Iberia's western shores. Any chart would end within a hundred miles or so of the coast,and the Atlantic beyond that thin edge was presumed to be filled with seamonsters and dragons. To venture far beyond land was to enter lethal territory.

In contrastto this fearful belief stood a few legends that told a different tale: theGreek story of the Argonauts, for example. To the daring seamen in this ancientepic, the unprobed frontier beyond the shore wasn't the exclusive province ofhungry monsters, but was home to wondrous beings. Adventure lay beyond thehorizon. A millennium later, the siren song of the Argonaut legend encouragedRenaissance sailors to dare the rollers of the open ocean, and eventuallydiscover the world.

At the dawnof the space age, Star Trek did the same for another frontier: thebitterly cold, dauntingly hostile voids between the stars. For millions ofpeople, outer space became a good place to be. Space promised adventure andhinted at amazing discoveries.

It's amythos we believe today. What's remarkable is that we take for granted that wealways have. As I wandered the halls of the Seattle convention, watching agingactors sign photos of themselves as they once were, and chatting with fanscostumed as they would dearly love to be, it occurred to me that there wastruth to the insouciant claim that Star Trek was much more than a TVshow. Star Trek convinced an entire generation that space is not simplythe empty tracts through which the stars course their lives. It's a place weare manifestly destined to go.

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Seth Shostak
Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute

Seth Shostak is an astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, who places a high priority on communicating science to the public. In addition to his many academic papers, Seth has published hundreds of popular science articles, and not just for; he makes regular contributions to NBC News MACH, for example. Seth has also co-authored a college textbook on astrobiology and written three popular science books on SETI, including "Confessions of an Alien Hunter" (National Geographic, 2009). In addition, Seth ahosts the SETI Institute's weekly radio show, "Big Picture Science."