The first episode of this famous science-fiction series was broadcast in September 1966. NASA has often made references to these programmes, as in the case of the space shuttle Enterprise, which had the same name as the spaceship in the series.
45 years ago, on 8 September 1966, the American television channel NBC broadcast the first episode of the series Star Trek, thus launching the crew of the spaceship Enterprise (capable of travelling from star system to star system) in a Utopian future set in a 23rd century full of humanism and highly advanced technologies.
In phase with space values The original Star Trek series cleverly combined all that could positively inspire the flight of mankind into space: a technology which had eradicated poverty, a pacified, egalitarian society bringing not only people on Earth, but also other extraterrestrial civilisations together in the United Federation of Planets (however, there were still a few worlds that were enemies or run by tyrants so as to provide material with which to write action-packed episodes!). Beyond this aspect of “progressive Utopia”, the universe created by Gene Roddenberry also highlighted team work as an essential condition for space exploration; themes that obviously seduce those who work in the space industry. In the video below, produced by the CNES, French Space Agency, French astronaut Jean-François Clervoy talks about Star Trek and his love of this series.
Initial pilot film rejected! Let’s go back to when the series very first started in order to get a better understanding of why Star Trek is in phase with space values. The beginning was to prove difficult. In fact, the two-part “pilot” (a sort of TV film designed to test out concepts) entitled “The Cage” was rejected by the American NBC television channel. Nevertheless, the ideas put forward by the author Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991), a former member of the United States Air Force and the Los Angeles police turned scriptwriter, were deemed promising by the channel. Consequently, after a few adjustments, the green light was given to this so-called original series with its now legendry heroes: James Kirk, the courageous and altruistic (but also relatively aggressive) Captain of the Enterprise, Science Officer Spock half-Vulcan and half-Human (endlessly torn between his human condition and his Vulcan heritage where only reason can dictate actions) and the quick-tempered Doctor Leonard McCoy who is a loyal friend, even if his relationship with Spock is but one conflict after another. Below, the signature tune for the series with the famous phrase: “Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
A series full of humanist and progressives ideas Despite a certain reticence on behalf of NBC, Gene Roddenberry managed to include many themes that, especially for the time, were eminently progressive. For instance, in 1966 the space race was well underway with the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union to be first in reaching the Moon. And yet, Star Trek had no hesitation in including a Russian in the crew (Lieutenant Pavel Chekov)! The series presents a united world and Gene Roddenberry emphasised this with Lieutenant Sulu who is of Japanese origin and the Communications Officer Uhura. That such responsibility could be entrusted to a woman, and an Afro-American woman no less, highlights just how much Gene Roddenberry wanted to shake up the 1960 conventions. Furthermore, one episode stands out with the first kiss between a white man (Kirk) and a black woman (Uhura) on American television, during the third and final season in 1968: and although the scriptwriters had provided a ruse to lessen the impact of this audacity (they kissed as they were under the mental control of an extraterrestrial race), the scene went completely against the prejudices that existed at that time as actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, explains in the video interview below.
Success was not immediate Despite these innovative aspects, the desire to alternate adventurous episodes with some full of feelings and even sometimes humour, whilst covering themes of society, the series did not achieve the expected audience figures and was stopped much to the great regret of its earliest supporters in 1969, after the third season. In fact, its popularity grew later on when the series was repeated on local television channels (so-called principle of syndication in the USA). Star Trek thus acquired its cult status and follow-ups were then produced, starting with cartoons (1973-1974), and then four new series with actors: The Next Generation (1987-1994), Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Voyager (1995-2001) and Enterprise (2001-2005), not forgetting the cinema adaptations (11 in all).
A space shuttle allusion to Star Trek In the video interview at the beginning of this feature, French astronaut Jean-François Clervoy referred to his American colleague John Grunsfeld, another Star Trek fan, and how the two of them used sayings from the series in order to communicate, even during tricky works in orbit. An anecdote that shows to what extent the adventures of Kirk and his friends constitute a reference that is in phase with the space professional culture. And logically, there are many fans amongst NASA’s personnel and its industrial service providers... even though the hand of the American Agency had to be forced a little, at least at the beginning. To understand, let’s go back to 1976, when the first space shuttle was due to emerge from the workshops of its constructer in Palmdale, California. The name envisaged was Constitution as it was to be officially announced on 17 September 1976, the anniversary of the signing of the American Constitution in 1787. But Star Trek fans organised a campaign by sending letters to the resident of the White House who, at the time, was President Gerald Ford, in order that the new American spaceship be named Enterprise in tribute to the interstellar cruiser from the cult series.
The creator of Star Trek and the leading actors from the series were introduced to the space shuttle Enterprise in 1976. From left to right: James Fletcher (NASA’s Administrator at the time), DeForrest Kelley (Dr McCoy), George Takei (Mr Sulu), Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura), Leonard Nimoy (the Vulcan Spock), Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek), an official and Walter Koenig (Pavel Chekov). Credit: NASA
And, it worked! Officially however, the President told NASA that he was in favour of this name, not because of the steps taken by the “trekkies” (as Star Trek fans are known), but because he had served during the Second World War on aircraft carrier USS Enterprise... The American Space Agency then decided to use this obligation to its advantage with regard to its general public communication campaign and invited Gene Roddenberry and the leading actors from the series to Enterprise’s presentation. The irony of the story is that this space shuttle never went into space as it was used for testing the final return phase of gliding that all future space shuttles performed after having left Earth orbit. Allusions and direct references mounted up In the end, the communication ruse paid off, even more so as the number of fans was continually on the increase due to the repeating of Star Trek. In 1979, 3 years after the presentation of space shuttle Enterprise, the original series was adapted for the first time for the big screen. The Star Trek heroes were called upon once again to intercept a gigantic extraterrestrial spaceship that was threatening the Earth and which was under the command of the mysterious V’Ger. Take a look at the trailer below.
Final surprise, we find out that V’Ger is no other than the lost probe Voyager 6 (over time the letters “oya” and the number 6 have worn off) sent by the inhabitants of the planet Earth at the end of the 20th century and which was retrieved by a race of living machines, thus giving them the means to search for its “creator”, namely humans! The fictional probe Voyager 6 is obviously a reference to NASA’s Voyager probes. Surfing on the cultural phenomenon that Star Trek has become, NASA no longer hesitates to make more or less direct use of this fictional future, thus enabling the American Agency to gain the interest of the general public to such a point that it is practically impossible to draw up an exhaustive list of NASA’ allusions to Kirk and his successors. Here, however, are just a few examples although they are not necessarily in chronological order. Did you know that NASA astronauts played a small part in Star Trek? It was in 2005 for one of the ultimate episodes of the series Enterprise (the last to date of the television Star Trek universe).
Astronauts Terry Virts (left) and Mike Fincke (right) in costume with actor Scott Bakula who played Captain Archer in the series Star Trek Enterprise which tells of the expeditions of the Earth’s first spaceship capable of reaching “distortion 5”, which is 214 times the speed of light. The story takes place 100 years before the adventures of Kirk and his companions from the original series. The Enterprise in this case is a spaceship registered as NX-01, and therefore a predecessor of Captain Kirk’s NCC-1701. Credit: NASA
Actor Scott Bakula, was also requested by the Agency (in his role as Captain Archer) to present the return-to-flight issues after the tragedy involving the space shuttle Columbia. By clicking on the above screenshot, you can consult the website setup at this time (it is a Flash animation). Credit: NASA
Crew posters have often been the occasion for astronauts to take inspiration from the Star Trek film posters if they so wished. And in this respect, Endeavour’s STS-134 mission (last but one space shuttle flight) is a text book example, copying the overall design of the poster for J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek film which came out in 2009 (see below).
The crew from STS-134 posed for its mission poster in such a way as to copy the graphic style of the 2009 Star Trek poster. Credit: NASA/Paramount/Enjoy Space
This 2009 remake features the leading characters from the original series (Kirk, McCoy, Spock, Uhura, etc.) with different actors and sets them in an alternative storyline by means of a temporal paradox. In one sequence, the particularly successful special effects even use images of Saturn taken by the Cassini probe (a mission that associates NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency).
The Enterprise from the 2009 Star Trek emerges from the mist surrounding the moon Titan with Saturn in the background. The image of the planet came straight from the photographs taken by the Cassini probe. Read this Enjoy Space article to find out more. Credit: Paramount
Although the 2009 vintage of Captain Kirk is convincingly played by actor Chris Pine, Canadian William Shatner from the original series remains the irrefutable reference. Moreover, the American Space Agency called upon the latter to record a message sent to the crew aboard space shuttle Discovery during its ultimate mission, STS-133, in March 2011. You can listen to this unusual “Wake-up Call” (music radio broadcast by Houston for waking the astronauts) with the video tribute below.
The text spoken by William Shatner, over Alexander Courage’s famous Star Trek melody, was slightly modified from the original presentation for the series in order to become: “Space, the final frontier. These have been the voyages of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Her 30 year mission: To seek out new science. To build new outposts. To bring nations together on the final frontier. To boldly go, and do, what no spacecraft has done before”. The oldest of NASA’s space shuttles, the human flight spacecraft that accumulated the most missions in orbit with its total of 39, was well worthy of this exceptional tribute! William Shatner was to co-operate again with NASA several weeks later to record the commentary for a documentary made by the Agency about the entire space shuttle programme. You can watch it below.
The artistic links between Star Trek and NASA are sometimes very close. For instance, graphic designer Michael Okuda received a “NASA Exceptional Public Service Medal” for his contribution to the space programme. He has designed artwork such as for logos and patches for the Constellation project and for STS-125, the last Hubble space telescope servicing mission for a space shuttle. Okuda long worked on 5 Star Trek series and 6 cinema adaptations.
Artist Michael Okuda (in the middle with the black jacket) when he received the NASA Exceptional Public Service Medal. He can be seen holding the STS-125 mission patch with astronaut John Grunsfeld (in the orange tee-shirt) by his side. Credit: NASA
With the International Space Station’s Expedition 21, under the command of the European Space Agency’s astronaut Frank De Winne, the reference to Star Trek reached an all-time high with the poster below. Take a good look, it has everything: a sci-fi spaceship in shadow behind the Station and the stances of the astronauts, wearing costumes from the series, are worthy of actors.
As an aside, the idea for this came from the fact that Belgian Frank De Winne was to become the first European to command the ISS (and even to command a spaceship). And, the series Star Trek: The Next Generation showed the Enterprise-D under the command of Jean-Luc Picard, a Frenchman and therefore a European. The European link was consequently inevitable! By associating Russia, America, Japan, Canada and Europe, the ISS can also be seen as a first step towards the concretisation of Gene Roddenberry’s dream of a united planet Earth.
From time to time, actors from Star Trek take part in communication operations on NASA’s behalf. Here, George Takei (taken from behind, Sulu in the original series) was visiting the Goddard Center and gave the Vulcan salute to a technician so that his photograph could be taken. Credit: NASA/Bill Hrybyk
Sometimes, the allusions are less obvious and even unofficially recognised by the Agency. There is a blatant example aboard the ISS: the observation porthole in the American Destiny laboratory known as the Windows Observational Research Facility or WORF. Whereas Worf is the name of a major character in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation...
Jeff Williams is shown taking photographs of the Earth through the WORF porthole in the ISS’ Destiny laboratory. Credit: NASA
Star Trek referred to at ministerial level! At the close of this feature, it is worthy of note that although born in the United States, the impact of the cultural phenomenon Star Trek is not just limited to its country of origin. We have already seen above that Frank De Winne, European Commander of the ISS Expedition 21 chose a crew poster linked to this fictional universe. What’s more the astronaut had no hesitation in making reference to values conveyed by the series in the introduction that he wrote for the highly official “Report of the results of the Technical Steering Group for the preparation of the Second International Conference on Space Exploration at Ministerial Level” in September 2010. And the ministerial level in question was that of the European and International Ministerial Level! In his inspired text, Frank De Winne therefore reiterated the message of the series: “Star Trek, the Next Generation was focusing on discoveries and human values. They stood for universal liberty, equality, justice, diplomacy and cooperation between societies that were part of the United Federation of Planets”. In this way, he highlighted the “benefits to the citizens of the societies that chose to explore, that chose to progress” and defended the need for an ambitious European space programme. He concluded with the words: “The voyage has just begun. And I cannot say it better than the first European Captain of the Starship Enterprise, the great Jean-Luc Picard: 'Let’s see what is out there. Engage'.”. And so ends this feature!
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