'Star Trek:' History & effect on space technology

Original Starship Enterprise Model at Air and Space Museum
This model of the USS Enterprise starship was used in the original "Star Trek" TV series, which aired from 1966 to 1969. (Image credit: National Air and Space Museum)

Since viewers first heard the tagline, "… to boldly go where no man has gone before," "Star Trek" has represented the hope of what space — "the final frontier" — can mean for humanity in a few centuries. First airing in 1966, the show became a phenomenon, spawning spinoff TV series, movies, books and games, and influencing culture and technology.

The franchise mostly follows the adventures of crews on the USS Enterprise, although some iterations took detours on space stations or other ships. Humanity is just one of a vast number of alien species participating in a quasi-military organization called Starfleet, whose main goal is to explore the universe for scientific reasons. Starfleet is an arm of the United Federation of Planets, which has a strict rule about interfering with the development of more primitive species. This "prime directive" sounds similar to NASA's planetary protection protocols for worlds that may host microbial life.

General franchise history and overview

"Star Trek" was created by Gene Roddenberry, a WWII veteran pilot who began writing freelance scripts while working as a police officer in Los Angeles, according to "Star Trek" fan site Memory Alpha. Famously, NBC executives did not like the first pilot. They reportedly said the show had too little action and was "too cerebral" for viewers; however, they offered the chance for a second pilot. Except for Spock (Leonard Nimoy), an alien from the planet Vulcan, the cast was completely switched out for a different crew, led by Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner).

"Star Trek" first aired in 1966. The series followed the adventures of the USS Enterprise on a five-year mission to "explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." Many of the episodes were allegories about issues embroiling society in the 1960s, such as race, war and peace, and the generation gap. However, the show was cancelled after only three years into the mission due to ratings concerns, according to Memory Alpha. Syndicated reruns of the series began soon after, though, and kept the series alive in the minds of fans. In fact, thousands of fans attended the first "Star Trek" convention in 1972. 

The series was briefly revived as an animated series in 1973-74, and Roddenberry began developing a new series, "Star Trek: Phase II," in 1975. Those plans were changed after the success of "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Instead, the plan was expanded and became "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." Overall, the original series (or "TOS") spawned six motion pictures between 1979 and 1991 (plus a partial appearance by some members of the original crew in a 1994 film). 

The franchise's newfound success eventually led to the creation of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1987-1994), which was set many years after the original series, with a new USS Enterprise helmed by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). This generation of "Star Trek" tackled issues such as racism, gender and torture, according to Memory Alpha, and remains one of the most popularly cited series to this day. "TNG" also eventually moved into theaters, with four films between 1994 and 2002. 

Roddenberry died in 1991. While "TNG" was still on the air, a different series, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" (1993-1999), premiered. The show followed the exploits of a crew on a space station, rather than the traditional starship. In recent years, the show has been hailed for its then-innovative approach to cable television; the plots of individual episodes were closely linked to each other, making it ideal for today's binge-viewing generations.

Other series followed and continue to this day. "Star Trek: Voyager" (1995-2001) followed the exploits of a crew that was stranded light-years from home, led by the franchise's first main female captain, Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). "Enterprise" (2001-2005) was a prequel to the events of The Original Series, with Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) helming the first warp-drive-capable Enterprise. Then in 2017, "Star Trek Discovery" debuted on CBS All Access, garnering mostly positive attention for its alternate universe plots, its use of swear words and its approach to same-sex relationships. The series was renewed for a second season, which will drop in 2019. CBS is also considering making as many as four new "Star Trek" series for limited or extended runs, multiple reports said in mid-2018.

And "Star Trek" continues on the big screen, too, courtesy of Paramount. The Original Series came back to Hollywood with a reboot of the original characters of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and the rest of the original crew. The 2009 film ("Star Trek") was a hit and has so far spawned three other films — "Star Trek: Into Darkness" (2013), "Star Trek Beyond" (2016) and an untitled film in the works for 2019.

"Star Trek" also has generated a diverse fan base, some of whom create limited episode productions for themselves. Conventions continue to attract thousands of fans who are eager to rub elbows with actors, writers and other people who worked on the various series and movies. The franchise celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016 and continues to live long and prosper.

Franchise impact on real-life space exploration

Perhaps the most famous example of the series' influence on real life took place in the 1970s. The United States was preparing to run test flights of the space shuttle program using a prototype vehicle called Constitution. In response, thousands of "Star Trek" fans staged a write-in campaign to the White House and NASA asking for the prototype shuttle to be named Enterprise. When Enterprise was indeed unveiled in 1976, most of the main cast of TOS was on hand. Enterprise was not designed to fly in space, however.

Decades later, space tourism company Virgin Galactic named one of its planned spacecraft VSS Enterprise, after the television show. The spacecraft, built in 2004, did several in-atmosphere tests in preparation for eventually bringing it and other prototypes into space. VSS Enterprise, however, was destroyed in 2014 during a crash that killed one pilot and severely injured another. The National Transport Safety Board later determined a unique "feathering" system — intended to slow down the spacecraft as it was in the upper atmosphere — deployed early and was the leading cause of the crash.

A few astronauts have appeared on "Star Trek" over the years, according to fan site Memory Alpha. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to fly in space, was on the 1993 sixth season episode of TNG's "Second Chances." She was visited on the set by Nichelle Nichols. While in space during STS-47, Jemison reportedly began shifts with Mission Control by quoting Uhura's famous line: "Hailing frequencies are open." Astronauts Mike Fincke and Terry Virts appeared on the series finale of "Enterprise" in 2005. They portrayed 22nd-century engineers who performed maintenance in the Enterprise's engine room. 

While no "Star Trek" regular actor has flown in space (yet), several of them have recorded supportive messages for NASA, such as Nichols and Wil Wheaton (TNG's Wesley Crusher). Nichols not only did a video message, but also flew on NASA's SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) aircraft in 2015. 

"Star Trek" actors have also bantered with real astronauts on Twitter, most notably early in Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's International Space Station mission in 2012-13 when he spoke with Shatner, Nimoy, Wheaton and George Takei. (Shatner asked: "Are you tweeting from space?" to which Hadfield replied, "Yes, Standard Orbit, Captain. And we're detecting signs of life from the surface.") 

After Nimoy died in February 2015, NASA sent out a tweet honoring the actor: "RIP Leonard Nimoy. So many of us at NASA were inspired by Star Trek. Boldly go …" Virts took a picture of the Vulcan hand sign in orbit; the picture he beamed back to Earth coincidentally showed his hand over Boston, Nimoy's birthplace. But Virts said he didn't mean to do it, as when he heard the news about Nimoy's death he had only a few minutes to execute his idea before going to a pressing task on station.

Star Trek tech

Several early "Star Trek" technologies have also made their way into our everyday lives. "Communicators" are now cell phones, which connect to each other via satellite. Tricorders, which were used to gather medical information, are now available as MRIs — some of which are being developed for space. (In 2017, a medical "tricorder" received $2.6 million in prize money from the X Prize Foundation.) Crewmembers can also be seen using tablet computers on TNG, many years before they became available commercially.

However, human teleportation still eludes us, as does faster-than-light warp drive. In 2015, NASA downplayed several media reports that a "faster-than-light" propulsion system they were developing was on the verge of a breakthrough. "NASA is not working on 'warp drive' technology," officials said, adding that the research was "a small effort that has not yet shown any tangible results." Teleportation, meanwhile, has only been achieved on the quantum scale across a few miles.

List of film and TV appearances

Numerous fan-made productions and series spinoffs (such as books and comic books) have been produced; however, this list represents the "official" films and television series that have been released, according to memory Alpha. There are plans to release a fourth in the "rebooted" series of "Star Trek" films in 2019.

Television series

  • Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969)
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
  • Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)
  • Enterprise (2001-2005)
  • Star Trek Discovery (2017-)


  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
  • Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
  • Star Trek: The Search for Spock (1984)
  • Star Trek: The Voyage Home (1986)
  • Star Trek: The Final Frontier (1989)
  • Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
  • Star Trek: Generations (1994)
  • Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
  • Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
  • Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
  • Star Trek (2009)
  • Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)
  • Star Trek Beyond (2016)
  • Untitled Star Trek film (2019)

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace