Star Trek: 50 years of boldly going

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Star Trek followed the adventures of Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise(Credit: CBS)

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On September 8, 1966 at 8:30 pm ET, a new series premiered on the NBC television network. Neither the network nor the studio had any confidence in it and Variety panned it as "an incredible and dreary mess of confusion and complexities." Never a ratings hit, it barely ran three seasons before cancellation, yet this unsuccessful show called Star Trek went on to become a cultural phenomenon whose influence continues to reverberate half a century later, not only in entertainment, but in its impact on science and technology. New Atlas looks at the technology of the original Star Trek and why it still inspires scientists and engineers.

If any Star Trek fan had said after cancellation in 1969 that the show would spawn six spin off series, 13 feature films, and countless novels, videogames, comic books, and fan productions in all media, they'd probably have been quietly taken away and medicated. When it was cancelled, Star Trek was regarded as a money pit that Paramount was glad to be rid of. The actors moved on and by the mid-1970s even its creator Gene Roddenberry regarded it as dead as My Mother the Car.

But something unexpected happened. By producing 72 episodes, Star Trek had reached the magic number for the show to go into syndication. It was subsequently sold all over the world and acted as a magnet not only for science fiction fans, spawning the Trekkies or Trekkers, but also engineering students. The show's career since then is almost a history of modern pop culture in itself, but Star Trek is unusual in that it not only had an emotional resonance with its audience, but even in its first years on the air it had a major impact on science and technology, an impact that continues to this day.

The level of this impact can be seen at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, where the original model of the starship USS Enterprise, which starred in the show, is on display – not in the pop culture section with Archie Bunker's chair and Hawkeye Pierce's fatigues, but in the Boeing Milestones of Flight exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in tribute to its inspiration to decades of aerospace engineers.

Made out of plastic, sheet metal, and poplar, the 14-ft (4.2-m) model had suffered years of neglect and relegation to the Smithsonian's gift shop, but underwent extensive restoration and repainting in April, so that it not only looks as it did 50 years ago, but now also has lights that blink and engine nacelles that quietly idle as if waiting for the order to go to warp speed.

Another major exhibit is on the opposite coast at the EMP Museum in Seattle, Washington, where a special 50-year retrospective exhibit of the series runs through until February 17, 2017. This two-story showcase includes such "icons" as Captain James Kirk's command chair, the helm of the Enterprise where Sulu and Chekov plotted courses and fired phasers, as well as costumes, the original set design, interactive displays, and one of only two original phasers still in existence.

In an interview with New Atlas, EMP Curator Brooks Peck gave us a personal tour of the artifacts from the original series and discussed their history.

"We wanted to talk about the show, the franchise and the phenomenon, look at how Star Trek influences our society," Peck says. "Star Trek has been so influential and inspiring for people with the values and the ideas it brought forth. It presented a utopia that valued people getting along, valued cooperation, valued people, valued peaceful exploration and understanding, and people were really inspired by that."

This sounds like a lot of baggage to place on a television series that was just a relatively low-budget, although more ambitious, attempt at a prime-time space opera. Following the adventures of the captain and crew of an interstellar spaceship righting wrongs as they explored the galaxy, it did have some cerebral intentions, but its creator/producer Gene Roddenberry saw it as a way to handle controversial stories in the form of allegory. However, at the end of the day, Star Trek was an action adventure series, but it was an action adventure series with a difference.

Roddenberry put a lot of stake in what he called the "Believability Factor." That is, Star Trek might be space opera, but it was going to be plausible space opera at the very least. It was an adventure that would take place in a world that could, with a strong dose of dramatic license, exist.

"There's a believability because the tools and things you see on Star Trek seem genuinely useful and something you'd want," says Peck. "Gene Roddenberry didn't think his audience was stupid and he didn't treat them like they were stupid."

To this end, Roddenberry and his staff asked a lot of questions before the cameras started rolling. What will the future look like? Will kids ride tricycles? Will people use telephones? Send letters? How would they dress? What would they eat?

In many ways, Roddenberry was both very lucky and unlucky when Star Trek aired. On the one hand, the series came out at the peak of the Space Race and audiences were much more tech savvy than they'd been in 1950 when the space epic Destination Moon had to include a five-minute cartoon to explain how a rocket worked. This meant that he didn't have to laboriously sell the idea of the Enterprise to suburban American families, but those same families also had a greater knowledge of space and would catch mistakes that would destroy the illusion of the 23rd century.

To this end, Roddenberry et al did a great deal of research, consulted NASA and other experts, and Roddenberry even wrote an extensive "bible" for the series that not only introduced the characters and premise, but laid out in laborious detail things like the difference between a star system and a galaxy.

The result of all this was a fictional world complete with tools and a remarkable spacecraft that wouldn't be rivaled for attention to detail until 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968.

The Big Three

Perhaps the most familiar examples of Star Trek's impact on technology can be seen in its "Big Three" props: The Phaser, Communicator, and Tricorder. To the crew of the Enterprise, they were indispensable and the way they inspired later technology is surprising when you consider that they were essentially the standard cinematic space traveler's tool kit going back to Forbidden Planet in 1956.

Phaser

The phaser seems the most obvious of the three. It's a ray gun, disintegrator, blaster, or whatever the sci-fi sidearm du jour was at the time. It was originally going to be a laser pistol, but Roddenberry was worried that lasers would be old hat by the time the series aired and people would say, "Oh, come on now, lasers can't do that" when one kicked up dust or caused something to vanish. The solution was not to reinvent the laser, but to respell it.

However, it did have something special, the stun setting, which later inspired the modern taser. This was a weapon that didn't just kill, it could safely knock out an enemy.

"[The phaser's] got that stun setting," says Peck. "It's a non-lethal weapon that's very emblematic of the Federation and Starfleet. Worse come to worse, stun everybody and sort it out later and no one gets hurt."

Communicator

The communicator is the one that everyone points to when it comes to Star Trek's impact because the designer of the old-fashioned clamshell mobile phones points to it as his inspiration. Inspire it certainly did, but the communicator gets a lot of stick in the 21st century because this 23rd century device already looks obsolete. Where a modern smartphone can do a multitude of things, the communicator can only place calls – it can't even do video.

That may be true, but the communicator does have a few tricks up its sleeve. For one thing, it may work like a mobile phone, but it's one that doesn't need a network. In fact, it's more of a sat phone that can not only directly contact a ship in orbit thousands of miles away, but also through a planet while acting as a locator beacon of pinpoint accuracy. Not bad for 1966. In addition, it has an aesthetic element that many phones of today lack that makes you really want to hold one.

"Leaving aside the technological capabilities, it has a great shape and fits so nicely into the hand," says Peck.

Tricorder

Of the Big Three, the tricorder is the most mysterious. Created to give the character Yeoman Janice Rand more to do and justify her going on landing parties, it started out as a universal recording device and evolved into an all purpose sci-fi prop that gives Doctor Who's sonic screwdriver a run for its money.

"As a kid I spent a lot of time trying to puzzle out what it was and what it did," says Peck. "Sometimes it would take readings, but then there was the episode 'City on the Edge of Forever' when this big Guardian of Time is showing this image of history and Spock says, 'I could be recording this.' Suddenly we see it's a camera of sorts as well as a computer that can process data… I think the closest thing we have now is the smartphone in terms of technology as a more general purpose calculating device and I do know that certain scientists do use a smartphone as a platform for attaching instruments to them."

Indeed, today there are any number of projects to create a real-life tricorder that can detect and record various phenomena, but it may be sometime before we see anything like Mr Spock's trusty bag of tricks.

The Enterprise

But the centerpiece of the Star Trek universe is the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) – the Lady of the Skies that the writers love to destroy with the depressing regularity of Kenny from South Park. Its design has become so familiar today that you can buy bottle openers and pizza cutters shaped like the starship, but in 1966, it was a sensation to audiences.

Roddenberry wanted the Enterprise to look different from anything on aerospace drawing boards, so he avoided anything that looked like a conventional rocket, and he told the designers that it would be a ship that never lands, but always remains in space. This was because, a) a truly advanced spacecraft would probably spend about as much time on the ground as an aircraft carrier does in a corn field, and b) it was much, much cheaper to film.

The latter is a reminder that whatever Star Trek has become in popular culture, it was still a television show that had to balance believability, simplicity, and the budget.

The Enterprise was designed with a very strong internal logic that defined its shape, what the various modules did, and how they hooked together, but the thinking behind it all had to be kept simple to avoid confusing both the audience and writers. For example, Mr Spock was always going on about "sensor" readings, which was a simple way of referring to a wide range of complex instruments that the writers deliberately avoided naming.

On the budget front, if the ship's surgeon Dr McCoy needed surgical instruments, he had to make do with salt shakers and shoe buffers. Then there's the famous whirly medical scanner that McCoy used to diagnose illnesses and reflected the problems that Star Trek faced and how they were solved.

"We first borrowed this 10 years ago," said Peck about the scanner on display at EMP. "And when the collections staff-person unpacked it, she accidentally pressed the button on the side and it began to spin, so forty years later the battery in it was still working, which shows the power of Star Trek right there. So, we opened it up to remove the battery because it could corrode and discovered that what it was a much larger battery that they'd sawn in half and wrapped in tin foil to fit."

Meanwhile, the heart of the ship, the bridge, also had to bow to accounting concerns.

"In the original design, [the bridge] was more complex because they wanted to have most of the other staff facing the captain, says Peck. "But for reasons of budget and simplicity they had to turn that around."

Warp drive

Perhaps one of the biggest, yet most under-appreciated impacts of Star Trek was that it made the general pubic familiar with the concept of interstellar travel – something that had almost never been handled in a drama before. Without going into laborious lectures, the writers were able to make the public understand the general idea of what star travel was – that it required going faster than light and that it was very different from going to the Moon or Mars.

To do this, the Enterprise borrowed that old trope from pulp sci fi, the hyperdrive, changed the name to "warp drive" and with a few simple optical effects and some dialogue turned it into a ship that can warp space to achieve impossible speeds so that episodes could cover periods of days or weeks rather than the crew regularly having to enter stasis for thousands of years.

Star Trek also linked this drive to a plausible power source. It was obvious from the start that atomic power wasn't nearly enough and the original idea of fictitious "dilithium" crystals weren't working, so the writers came up with fueling the Enterprise with a matter/anti-matter power source. In this, anti-matter is brought into contact with matter and the two annihilate one another on contact, so for every 2 kg (4.4 lb) of mixture, the equivalent energy of 43 one-megaton nuclear warheads is released.

The amazing thing about the warp drive is that it is one of the two least believable main technologies in Star Trek. It violates a bushel of basic laws of physics and wipes its boots on Einstein's theory of Relativity, but it's one that has so inspired later scientists to come up with designs for interstellar ships based on some highly speculative theories on the edge of physics.

Transporter

The other "you're kidding" technology of Star Trek is the transporter, which was introduced to save money and speed up the narrative by "beaming" our heroes straight into the story. As it was described in the series, the transporter is both the least likely and the least desirable way of traveling ever devised. It involves turning a person into energy, beaming them down to a planet's surface, and then reassembling them.

It sounds plausible in a fridge logic sort of way, but it introduces so many problems that it makes the head swim. Aside from the difficulty of turning something the size of a human body into pure energy and directing that energy without blowing away half the planet, the amount of data needed to reassemble a person would require scanning and computation times equivalent to the lifetime of the Universe several times over – if it could be done at all, which quantum theory has doubts about.

Then there's the philosophical point that a transporter is a bit like traveling by meat grinder, where someone says they can turn you into hamburger, ship the meat across country, then put you back together again. Even if it were possible, I'm with Dr McCoy and would rather not.

That being said, scientists are experimenting with quantum teleportation and are even working on ways to make it more energy efficient. True, it only works on incredibly small scales, but it's a start.

Ship's services

Along with the major technologies of the Enterprise were those that kept the crew going and which have their real life counterparts, whether in use or on the drawing boards. There are the deflector shields used to protect the ship in battle or against meteoroid collisions, which are seen in the work on anti-radiation shields to protect future travelers to Mars. Then there's the tractor beam, the turbolifts, and the food synthesizers that are reflected in things like 3D-printed food and robotic chefs like BratBot.

Computers

One technology that looms very large in Star Trek is the computer. 1966 was a time when computers were still very mysterious things that you only got to play with if you had a very advanced degree in mathematics and a friend at Univac. It was also a time when, like today, people were very worried about automation and many stories revolved around megalomanic mainframes that think they're God or people's fears that they'll be displaced by computers or robots.

On the other hand, Star Trek foresaw a world dependent on computers with the Enterprise run by them. These computers were voice controlled and one episode had a voice-to-text typewriter that could switch to all caps when someone shouted at it. It was a world of Universal Translators that we're only just catching up with.

But in 1966, it was a technology already merging with Star Trek as the designers decided to use a feminine voice for the Enterprise computer based on pre-take off computer systems for the F-105 fighter that, at the time, were thought to penetrate noise better and command better attention.

In one remarkable bit of foresight, Star Trek even dealt with computer hackers, such as when Captain Kirk stood trial based on false evidence caused by computer tampering. And Kirk more than once showed that the way to handle a dangerous computer or android was by deploying pretzel-twisting logic.

Star Trek and people

All of the above is an interesting journey of fact and history, but does it answer the question of what Star Trek did, how it did it, and why we're celebrating 50 years of it?

Not really. But we are getting close. Star Trek was filled with technology. Some of it seemed like great predictions and other more like warnings. We can point to it inspiring this and that, and we can show real-world counterparts of many things that came out of the minds and typewriters of the writers. But there are still a few things to consider.

One is that Star Trek is not synonymous with science fiction. Before Lieutenant Uhura ever opened a hailing frequency or Dr McCoy said that he was a doctor, not a quantity surveyor, there had been many science fiction television series and many more science fiction books and short stories. Even a cursory study of the material shows that, in fact, Star Trek predicted very little first, but borrowed a lot from others. Communicators, transporters, phasers, warp drives, deflector shields, and even tribbles and Uhura's Bluetooth earpiece had all been done before.

And yet, Star Trek gets so much credit for these and many more. Why? Part of the answer is simply good marketing. Star Trek developed a phenomenal popularity and from the late 1970s onwards the owners of the brand have carefully guided it. It fact, it's where the term "film franchise" came from. Popularity breeds popularity and Paramount and CBS have been happy to feed it.

The other reason is much more basic. Star Trek was the first science fiction drama with a continuing cast of characters that viewers were able to form an emotional connection with. This provided a conduit to popularize many science fiction ideas that, in turn, inspired others to create them in real life in a way that a Tolkien or a Star Wars fan couldn't.

"When you watch characters who become beloved to you week after week and they use these tools," says Peck. "It's going to sink in a little deeper and almost create a demand."

The other thing is that while Star Trek takes a very utopian view of technology, it isn't sufficient to create a good society. It's the people and their values that decide that, as seen in the original series where the technologically advanced Klingons act like Renaissance Faire pirates with anger issues or the Mirror Universe episode where Kirk and company ran into their evil counterparts. It isn't just a matter of having phasers, but whose finger's on the trigger.

"[The Enterprise] has the power to destroy a planet, so people in Starfleet hold in their hands astonishing amounts of power, which they must learn to use wisely," says Peck. "The show reflects these values where we see people who we could completely trust with that kind of responsibility. How much do we trust our leaders with planet-destroying capabilities? I don't know."

Will Star Trek continue to influence science and technology for the next 50 years? It's difficult to say. Based on the recent films with their emphasis on action, maybe not, but Star Trek has been around for a long time and survived some truly awful scripts as well as changing audience tastes. Maybe one day we'll see the latest iteration beaming into our home holorooms, inspiring a new generation of scientists and engineers.

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