Fans of the television science fiction series Star Trek were saddened when the show’s final episode aired on June 3, 1969.
It seemed like the end of a very short era, as the program had only been on the air for three seasons.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry [https://www.aerotechnews.com/blog/2022/07/29/gene-roddenberry-creator-of-star-trek/] first had the idea for a science fiction television series in 1964, set in the 23rd century aboard a starship whose crew was dedicated to exploring the galaxy.
NBC introduced the show to its fall 1966 lineup, with the first episode airing on Sept. 8. To put that date in perspective, NASA was preparing to launch the Gemini 10 mission, and was still almost three years from landing humans on the Moon, while Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise was making fictional journeys through the galaxy.
What made the show particularly attractive to late 1960s television audiences was the makeup of the Enterprise’s crew. Among the major characters were an African-American woman Communications Officer, an Asian-American helmsman, and a half-human half-Vulcan Science Officer, eventually joined by a Russian-born ensign. While the show enjoyed good ratings during its first two seasons, lower ratings in the third season led to its eventual cancellation, despite a concerted letter-writing campaign from its dedicated fans.
After the show’s cancellation, Star Trek lived on and prospered in syndication and attracted an ever-growing fan base. Often dubbed “trekkies,” these fans held the first Star Trek convention in 1972 and became a dedicated constituency. When in 1976 NASA announced that it would name its first space shuttle orbiter Constitution, in honor of its rollout on Sept. 17, the anniversary of the ratification of the United States Constitution, trekkies engaged in a dedicated letter writing campaign to have the orbiter named Enterprise, after the starship in the television series. This time the fans’ letter writing campaign was successful. President Gerald R. Ford sided with the trekkies and directed NASA to rechristen the first space shuttle. When it rolled out of its manufacturing plant in Palmdale, Calif., it bore the name Enterprise. On hand to see the event were many of the original cast members of the show as well as its creator Rodenberry, hosted by NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher. Thus began a long relationship between the space agency and the Star Trek brand.
When NASA was developing the Space Shuttle in the 1970s, it needed to recruit a new group of astronauts to fly the vehicle, deploy the satellites, and perform the science experiments, and was encouraging women and minorities to apply to be astronauts.
The Agency hired Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Nyota Uhura as the Communications Officer on the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, to record a recruiting video [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lca9_EDMcX0]. She came to JSC in March 1977, and accompanied by Apollo 12 and Skylab 3 astronaut Alan L. Bean, toured the center and filmed scenes for the video in Mission Control and other facilities.
NASA hoped that her stature and popularity would encourage women and minorities to apply, and indeed they did. In January 1978, when NASA announced the selection of 35 new astronauts, among them for the first time were women and minorities. Nichols returned to JSC in September 2010 with the Traveling Space Museum, an organization that partners with schools to promote space studies. She toured Mission Control and the International Space Station trainer accompanied by astronaut B. Alvin Drew. She also flew aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy airborne telescope aircraft in September 2015, possibly the closest any of the cast members has come to flying in space [this was prior to William Shatner’s 2021 flight into space with Blue Origin].
Meanwhile, the Star Trek brand renewed itself in 1979 as a full length motion picture with the original TV series cast members reprising their roles. This first film was followed over the years with a number of sequels. And on the small screen, a reboot of sorts occurred in 1987 with the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation, set in the 24th century aboard the Enterprise-D, a next generation starship with a new crew. That series lasted seven seasons and was followed by a near-bewildering array of spin-off series, all built on the Star Trek brand, that continue to this day.
The actor who played Lt. Cmdr. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, the Starship Enterprise’s chief engineer, James Doohan, had early associations with NASA. In April 1967, Doohan visited NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, now Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, where he spent time with NASA pilot Bruce A. Peterson. Peterson was a test pilot for the experimental M2-F2 lifting body aircraft who a month later barely survived a horrific crash of the vehicle. Peterson became the inspiration for the 1970s TV series The Six-Million Dollar Man, and film of the crash was included in the show’s opening credits. Doohan narrated a documentary [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrqqeCCKKFk ]film about the Space Shuttle released shortly before Columbia made its first flight in April 1981.
In January 1991, Doohan visited the Johnson Space Center and accompanied by astronaut Mario Runco (who sometimes goes by the nickname “Spock”) toured the Shuttle trainers and Mission Control and tried his hand at operating the Shuttle robot arm in the Manipulator Development Facility. In a unique tribute, astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, the first person to step on the lunar surface, made a rare public appearance to speak at Doohan’s retirement in 2004, as “one old engineer to another.”
George Takei, who played Starship Enterprise helmsman Lt. Hikaru Sulu, and his husband Brad, visited JSC in May 2012.
Invited by both Asian Pacific American and LGBT Employee Resource Groups, Takei spoke of leadership and inclusiveness, including overcoming challenges while in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II and as a member of the LGBT community. He mentioned that Star Trek was ahead of its time in creating a future when all members of society could equally participate in great undertakings, at a time when the country was struggling through the Civil Rights movement and the conflict in Southeast Asia. He was greatly inspired by the inclusiveness that is part of NASA’s culture. JSC Center Director Michael L. Coats presented Takei with a plaque including an American flag flown aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis’ STS-135 mission. He also visited Mission Control and spent some time with Robonaut.
The Science Officer aboard the Starship Enterprise, the half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock, was played by Leonard Nimoy.
The actor was on hand in September 2012 when Space Shuttle Enterprise arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, on the last leg of its journey to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, where it is currently on display. “This is a reunion for me,” said Nimoy. “Thirty-five years ago, I met the Enterprise for the first time.” As noted earlier, the Star Trek cast was present when the first Space Shuttle rolled out of its factory in 1976. Following his death in 2015, European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristaforetti paid tribute to Nimoy aboard the ISS by wearing a Star Trek Science Officer uniform, giving the Vulcan greeting and quoting Captain Kirk, “Of all the souls I have encountered … his was the most human.”
At the helm of the Starship Enterprise was Capt. James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner. The actor is a life-long advocate of science and space exploration. His relationship with NASA began during the original series, with references to the space agency incorporated into several story lines. An episode that aired in February 1967 featured a photograph of the Gemini 6 launch hanging on the wall. In 2011, Shatner hosted and narrated a NASA documentary celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle program [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2fq8eC01HQ ], and gave his time and voice to other NASA documentaries. Most recently, he narrated the NASA video We Are Going [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bw8-sCAdscw], about our plans to land the next man and the first woman on the Moon by 2024. NASA recognized Shatner’s contributions in 2014 with a Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award the agency bestows on non-government individuals. The citation for the medal, presented to Shatner by NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications Bob Jacobs, read, “For outstanding generosity and dedication to inspiring new generations of explorers around the world, and for unwavering support for NASA and its missions of discovery.”
Elements of the Star Trek universe have made their way not only into popular culture but also into NASA culture.
As noted above, Star Trek fans were instrumental in naming the first Space Shuttle Enterprise. When NASA was designing an Earth observation facility for the ISS to make use of its optical quality window, its formal acronym became the Window Observational Research Facility (WORF). The connection between that acronym and the name of a Klingon officer aboard the Enterprise in the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series was an opportunity not to be missed. On the facility’s official patch, underneath the acronym WORF is the name written in the fictional Klingon language. Several astronaut crews have embraced Star Trek themes for their unofficial photographs. The STS-54 crew of Space Shuttle Endeavour dressed in the uniforms of Starship Enterprise officers from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” the second full-length feature motion picture of the series. Space Shuttle and ISS crews create Space Flight Awareness (SFA) posters for their missions, and more than one has embraced Star Trek motifs. The ISS Expedition 21 crew dressed in uniforms from the original series, while the STS-134 crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour chose as their motif the 2009 reboot motion picture Star Trek.
In the documentary “NASA on the Edge of Forever: Science in Space [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhPNNIiuEzI],” host NASA astronaut Victor Glover states, “Science and Star Trek go hand-in-hand.”
The film explores how for the past 50 years, Star Trek has influenced scientists, engineers, and even astronauts to reach beyond their potential. While the ISS doesn’t speed through the galaxy like the Starship Enterprise, much of the research conducted aboard the orbiting facility can make the fiction of Star Trek come a little closer to reality. Several of the cast members from the original TV series added their viewpoints in the documentary, along with those of NASA managers and scientists. The mutual attraction between NASA and Star Trek is that both, to paraphrase the opening voiceover from the TV series, seek to explore and seek out new worlds, and to boldly go where no one has gone before. May everyone involved in these endeavors live long and prosper.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared on the NASA website, June 3, 2019.