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NASA officials and 'Star Trek' stars honor Gene Roddenberry's lasting legacy on his 100th birthday

Several NASA employees and a "Star Trek" actor gathered virtually in a panel to celebrate diversity on what would have been the 100th birthday of the franchise's creator, Gene Roddenberry, last Thursday (Aug. 19).

Roddenberry was famous for embedding diversity into "The Original Series," which aired from 1966 to 1968 with a cast of starring, smart characters from different backgrounds — such as a Russian at the height of the Cold War, and a Black woman working on the bridge at the height of U.S. segregation.

And starting with that first series, NASA has collaborated with "Star Trek" from time to time to leverage the actors' talents for agency campaigns. Famous examples include a campaign of the 1970s seeking women and Black space travelers and renaming a space shuttle prototype after "Star Trek" starship U.S.S. Enterprise.

Related: The best Star Trek gifts and deals for 2021

Rod Roddenberry (top left), George Takei, Tracy Drain, Jonny Kim (bottom left), Swati Mohan and Hortense Diggs participate in a panel discussion as part of the program Celebrating Gene Roddenberry: Star Trek's Bridge and NASA. (Image credit: NASA)

Neither NASA nor Roddenberry was perfect in their approach to diversity in the early years, but they each made efforts to rectify concerns. NASA administrator Bill Nelson opened the discussion in a prerecorded message by noting Roddenberry was "ahead of his time," and that the message of diversity Roddenberry attempted to inculcate continues to inform NASA.

A 1976 Roddenberry statement where he spoke about diversity and its importance to "Star Trek" and exploration was also broadcast on the Deep Space Network during the NASA Television livestream. 

"If we cannot learn to actually enjoy ... small differences, [and] take in a positive light those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity is almost certainly out there," said the 1976 statement from Roddenberry, in part. Roddenberry died in 1991.

Explaining why diversity was so important to Roddenberry, his son Rod opened the discussion by mentioning the franchise was built on a backbone philosophy called "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations."

"In Star Trek," he continued, "it wasn't about a group of people going out to seek weird-looking aliens. They're going out to find creatures in our universe that looked at the universe in a different and unique sort of way. We have reached a point in our intellectual evolution where we understood that that we had to experience things that were different, to grow and evolve."

A critical context

George Takei played Hikaru Sulu on "The Original Series." A Japanese-American whose family was interned in the United States during the Second World War, Takei recalled the American context of the 1960s in which "The Original Series" ran. 

In 1966, "Star Trek" came to television "at the height of the various social issues," he said. "We had the civil rights movement going on, African Americans demonstrating for equality and being attacked by law enforcement officers, with attack dogs and fire hoses." 

Drawing parallels with the current-day Black Lives Matter movement, Takei said there still is a long way to go — but diversity has made strides in the more than 55 years since "Star Trek" started airing. "It was an optimistic look toward the future," he said of the show. "Hopefully not that far in the future, we will be able to recognize what Gene was telling us, by working together in concert."

Tracy Drain, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who has helped with missions such as the Kepler planet-seeking spacecraft and the Juno Jupiter flybys, said she grew up watching "Star Trek" and is thrilled to explore planets in real life, as the actors did in the show. But she said she was fortunate because both she and her mother — one generation before — were inspired by the Black actors on the show to explore space, even though they didn't see examples in real life around them.

"There's a double-edged sword to that because I was also a bit cut off from my own people's culture and history, and only started learning about that in my 30s," Drain noted. For example, she initially had no idea about the NASA "Hidden Figures" — the Black computer scientists of the 1960s — who worked in the background of astronaut missions at the same NASA center, Langley, as Drain did during her internship.

Drain added diversity is one of the best parts of her job at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she has worked since graduation. "Even though I personally have gotten to work with a lot of people from so many different backgrounds and just educational experiences, trying to put together these complex missions, it's been wonderful."

Hortense Diggs, director of the office of communications and public engagement at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said the various agency employees and contractors she works with continue to be inspired by the diversity of the various U.S.S. Enterprise crews.

Diggs, who is Black, confided that until her junior year in high school, she wanted to be a pediatrician because she loved working with kids and students. She had talked herself out of going to school and majoring in biology because "I don't see anyone that looked like me." But her math grades earned her a post-secondary scholarship in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and her mother encouraged her to go despite her doubts. 

Now happily at NASA, Diggs said she is convinced that young students need to know that astronaut careers — "as much as we love them" — are not the only pathway to space. "I want to make sure that they know about the other things that are out there, so that they can find a passion for what NASA is doing and be inspired to one day join us in our exploration."

Swati Mohan, lead for Mars 2020 guidance, navigation, and controls operations JPL, drew parallels between the ongoing search for life on Mars and the search for life that the "Star Trek" crews continue to show in fiction.

"The part that I love best about it was that … each episode had a way of turning what you thought you knew about the universe on its head, and making you realize that there was so much more out there than what you could comprehend," Mohan said. "Right now, in the vastness of the universe, what we know about it is so different. The part that excites me most about the missions that we work on is seeking out that knowledge in whatever shape or form that it may come in."

Mohan, an Indian-American who came to the United States with her family when she was one year old, said she "felt bifurcated" because she experienced one culture at home and another culture at school. Space exploration ended up being her way of seeking a better place, Mohan added, and for helping and inspiring youth coming behind her. 

"All throughout growing up, it took a lot of soul-searching and being honest with myself as to what I was really passionate about, and what I was really good at," Mohan said. "Not to take in what I thought I needed to do, or how I thought I needed to be based on my upbringing or my culture, but what I really wanted for myself."

Astronaut Jonny Kim, who also participated in the panel, recalled struggling growing up to "become the best version of myself" because he was having difficulty finding an identity.

"My parents were immigrants and culturally, I felt between worlds. Something about the warrior culture of becoming a Navy SEAL really called out to me, and I tried it. I discovered a little bit of who I was," he said.

"I discovered the goods and the bads of humanity, of human struggle, and I was inspired to become a physician from there," Kim continued. "And in doing that, I found NASA. I discovered NASA as a platform to do what I love to do, which is seek hard things, challenging things to push beyond limits, but at the same time make the world a better place."

He added that growing up, he never expected to be an astronaut. While he had a picture of the Apollo 11 crew pinned over his bed, the Korean-American did not see himself reflected in the three white faces on the wall. "When we don't see someone that we can relate with in the places we want to be, or in the things that we're striving to do, we just don't think about doing it. It's just the way it is," he said.

Takei challenged the NASA employees on the call (and anyone listening in) to bring the diversity of space exploration into other problems on Earth. "It's wonderful that we're going out there, and we did inspire — with 'Star Trek' and Gene Roddenberry's vision — the importance of infinite diversity in infinite combinations coming together. But also we need to get your kind of minds working on the problems, the social justice problems, that we have in our society today."

In part of her response, Diggs noted NASA needs to continue to think creatively to bring diversity to the agency, as qualified people are abundant. "Put some mindful thought into it, and thinking about how we address those problems head on, as well as doing the exploration that we're in the midst of."

Mohan added that NASA continues to seek the challenge of making diversity in society reflected in its own teams, although the effort is nowhere near finished yet and there always is the bias to hire people like yourself — not a good bias, she noted. If we only seek like people, she warned, "we won't have the diversity of mindset, we won't have the diversity of thought, that will really allow us to think outside the box to solve these hard technological problems."

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.