45 Years Later, Star Trek Continues to Inspire

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Star Trek inspired me to pursue a career in science (and by extension, science writing). It really is as simple as that.

Through school, college and university, my life was rich in the sci-fi ideas of warp drives, photon torpedoes, the Prime Directive and Jean-Luc Picard’s famous line: “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” The spirit of discovery and adventure inspired me to learn about what makes our Universe tick.

Unsurprisingly, on a daily basis I come across scientists who claim the same thing: Star Trek, through its various incarnations, inspired them. For me, I was (and always will be) a Star Trek: The Next Generation geek, but today is a celebration of The Original Series that first aired on this day 45 years ago.

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On Sept. 8, 1966, the Star Trek episode “The Man Trap” hit U.S. television screens on NBC and continued to run for three seasons. At the time, Gene Roddenberry’s creation failed to generate the fans it has today, struggling with low ratings. By 1969, The Original Series had ended. It wasn’t until NBC syndicated the show that it gained popularity in the following years.

Since its humble beginnings, 11 movies have been released, including four spin-off TV series (The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager and Enterprise) and one animated series, spanning 45 years. The most recent movie, directed by J.J. Abrams and released in 2009, received rave reviews, proving Roddenberry’s creation still inspires the modern world.

Naturally, the science described throughout is often rather “out there” and not always scientifically accurate, but through expert storytelling and a believable universe, many of these issues could be overlooked. However, Star Trek science has also invigorated advanced physics theories that are slowly being taken seriously.

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You might have noticed, but the faster-than-light-speed propulsion method favored by Captain Kirk is an avenue of real physics research that is beginning to gain some traction in research circles, thanks to the observed effects of dark energy and the recent formulation of string theory.

Gene Roddenberry’s son puts this down to his father’s belief that mankind can achieve anything. Although warp drive was needed for the original TV series so that Kirk and co. wouldn’t have to spend decades traveling from one star to the next, this science fiction idea solved a problem — how can mankind become an interstellar species?

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“My father used to speak of the pyramids, not as mysteries, but as examples of astonishing human achievement,” Rod Roddenberry told Discovery News. “I share his innate belief in human ability.”

“So while I am no expert in quantum mechanics or astrophysics, I will say that we are an amazing species with a history of breaking through our perceived limitations and achieving the unachievable. I see no reason why warp drive couldn’t eventually be part of that tradition.”

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Richard Obousy, physicist, advanced propulsion expert and co-founder of Icarus Interstellar Inc., a non-profit group of scientists dedicated to sending a probe to another star, is one of those scientists who was also inspired by Star Trek‘s science and is currently applying modern physics to understand how a warp drive might function in reality.

“I’ve been a devoted science fiction fan since childhood, and Star Trek has always been one of my favorites,” Obousy told Discovery News. “While Star Trek is a space ‘opera’ at a superficial level, at its core, it is about human creativity and the vast potential of technologies that inspired human minds can construct.”

“The Star Trek Warp Drive allows the crew of the Enterprise to travel at Einstein-defying velocities, and the Transporter can turn pieces of matter (even human beings) into pure energy and transport them from an orbiting space station to a planetary surface almost instantaneously. But this awesome technology is not the only appeal of this revolutionary work of television art — also just as compelling is the complex interplay between the characters of Star Trek and their environment.”

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Roddenberry agrees, and believes his father’s work finds a deep human connection with the viewer.

Star Trek is amazing in that it speaks to people of all different backgrounds on a very human level,” said Roddenberry. “However, I would say that its largest achievement lies in the fact that it conveys one singular message more strongly than anything else –- hope for the future.”

And this “hope” is certainly being reflected in the hi-tech world we are becoming accustomed to. Although the modern world is filled with conflict, suffering and uncertainty, the story of Star Trek has always shown us that mankind could be capable of better; to join forces and push deeper into space, making untold discoveries. But on a technological level, Gene Roddenberry’s vision is being proven every day, sometimes it’s even surpassed.

“One aspect of Star Trek that I’ve always found so appealing is its capacity to illustrate how we underestimate the potential of technological progress,” Obousy added. “When I first watched the original Star Trek in the 1980′s, the concept of the Communicator seemed like 23rd century technology, something that we’d unlikely see in my lifetime. Yet today, with our stunning tablet computers and next generation ‘super-cellphones’, the Star Trek communicator seems archaic in comparison.”

“And within the realms of current scientific undertakings, teleportation has been accomplished, albeit at a quantum level, and even the fantastical warp drive now has some basis within the known laws of physics.”

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Whether mankind’s future will be filled with interstellar treks to far-off worlds, meeting and collaborating (and sometimes fighting) with alien civilizations, is pure fantasy. But the future described in Star Trek provides us with the hope that the almost Utopian Star Trek galaxy might just happen. And who knows, like some of the technologies sitting on my desk right this moment, perhaps some aspects of Gene Roddenberry’s creation might even be surpassed.

Star Trek not only provides a confidence that there will be a tomorrow, but the belief that it can be better than today.” Roddenberry concluded.

“Now it’s up to each of us to rise to the challenge and ‘make it so.’”

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Image: Gene Roddenberry (third from the right, dressed in a brown suit) in 1976 with most of the cast of Star Trek visiting the Space Shuttle Enterprise at the Rockwell International plant at Palmdale, California, USA (NASA).