Boldly go: SpaceX to launch diversity tribute to 'Star Trek' creator Gene Roddenberry

'Star Trek' creator Gene Roddenberry was known for including one of the first interracial kisses on television, which involved Nichelle Nichols (left) and William Shatner (right).
'Star Trek' creator Gene Roddenberry was known for including one of the first interracial kisses on television, which involved Nichelle Nichols (left) and William Shatner (right). (Image credit: Courtesy of CBS Television Studios)

A commitment to diversity honoring "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry will soon blast off to the final frontier.

Fans inspired by Gene Roddenberry, who launched "Star Trek" in 1966 with "The Original Series," will see their art go to space early next month on board SpaceX's Transporter 6 mission.

That flight will loft, among other payloads, a "flock" of tiny Earth-observing SuperDove satellites for San Francisco-based company Planet atop a Falcon 9 rocket. Some of those cubesats "will be adorned with artwork and quotes that celebrate the legacy of hope and inclusiveness of 'Star Trek' and its creator, Gene Roddenberry," representatives of Planet and the Roddenberry Foundation, which worked together on the project, said in a statement (opens in new tab).

Related: NASA celebrates the life and career of 'Star Trek' star Nichelle Nichols

You can view a mosaic (opens in new tab) of the fan art on the "Boldly Go" campaign website (named after an iconic phrase from the franchise).

The campaign was launched by the Roddenberry Foundation in 2021 to celebrate the "Star Trek" creator's centennial year. (He was born in 1921 and died in 1991). The campaign sees humanity's future as "one of inclusion, scientific progress and co-operation across our differences," the statement reads (opens in new tab).

"Star Trek showed us a future where diverse peoples come together across differences to work for the common good," Rod Roddenberry, son of Gene Roddenberry and co-founder of the Roddenberry Foundation, said in the same statement. 

Gene Roddenberry has been lauded for his efforts to boost diversity, including casting a Black woman (Nichelle Nichols) in a starring role. He authorized the likely first interracial kiss on television, between Nichols (playing Uhura) and William Shatner (as Capt. James T. Kirk.) 

Starring cast members of "The Original Series" also included a Japanese-American who had survived internment during the Second World War (George Takei) and the Chicago-born son of Russian Jewish immigrants (Walter Koenig), who was cast at the height of the Cold War space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

But Roddenberry's practices were not perfect. Takei, a gay man who came out in 2005, after society became more accepting, has said that Roddenberry held back on portraying queer people on television during a highly restrictive era. Roddenberry had worried about network retribution, but to his credit, the "Star Trek" creator later said he regretted not being an advocate for that community.

Related: Space has a diversity problem — and big institutions like universities can do something about it

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The franchise remains committed to diversity three decades after Roddenberry's death. Taking "Star Trek Discovery" as just one recent example, it portrayed the first gay couple in a starring franchise role with Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber, played by Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz, respectively. The show also cast its first non-binary and trans characters; the trans character (Gray) is played by trans actor Ian Alexander, and the non-binary character (Adira) is portrayed by non-binary actor Blu del Barrio.

Trek diversity has also spilled off-screen. The death of Nichols in August, at age 89, prompted many to recall the time she worked directly with NASA in the 1970s to recruit people of color and women into the astronaut corps. That campaign brought in astronaut luminaries such as Sally Ride and Judith Resnick (the first and second American women in space), Guion Bluford and Ron McNair (the first and second Black Americans in space) and Ellison Onizuka (the first Asian American in space).

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, 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 (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. 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

  • Helio
    As a college kid, I can say that the diversity was appreciated. Movies (tv and big screen) are almost always about the struggle we humans have in life, including our own social life. The show handled it masterfully.

    Some episodes help deal with racism, including the one where two races hated one another. This was where one race was black on their whole right side & white on their left, which hates the other race that was opposite. Most of the viewing audience likely did not even understand the racial element until it was explained during the dialogue.

    Another point I'll add is that the diversity was not presented as equity-based, but-merit based; the crewmembers were regarded as the best (performance) of Starfleet.
    Reply
  • Mark C. Waters
    Really excited for this rocket launch, and kudos to the Roddenberry Foundation for celebrating Gene's legacy in such a cool way. He really was ahead of his time.
    Reply