To Boldly Go: Star Trek And Its Place In History
The Shared History of NASA and Star Trek
Star Trek: Discovery premiered Sunday, September 24, 2017 to less than stellar reviews. Set a decade before Star Trek: TOS (The Original Series), Discovery follows the exploits of the USS Discovery during the Federation/Klingon Cold War. (For the uninitiated, the Federation is a sort of interstellar United Nations, while the Klingons are, well, the bad guys.)
The Hollywood Reporter declared that Star Trek: Discovery “felt like a failure, albeit an occasionally epic and ambitious” one; Slate called it “ambitious and emotional, if not always logical;” and The Guardian says “Star Trek: Discovery is more depressing than it probably needs to be.”
However, I’m here to say that it does not matter if this new Star Trek is good or bad. The important thing is that it is on the air.
Ever since JFK announced his intention of landing a man on the moon, Star Trek and the space program have been inextricably linked, each fueling and pushing the other. Pushing them to greater leaps and bounds, driving each other to go further than they previously imagined.
Star Trek has existed on TV in one form or other, almost without exception since TOS first aired in 1966. It was the creation of Eugene “Gene” Roddenberry, who pictured a utopic future in which all races of mankind, along with other species (aliens), would venture beyond Earth and the solar system; beyond the Milky Way galaxy to maybe search out new species and civilizations.
Roddenberry was no doubt inspired by the proclamation that John F Kennedy gave a special joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961 in which he stated his intent to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Also, the public speech he made on September 12, 1962.
Beginning with that day in September of 1962, the Apollo program was the beginning of JFK’s intent to land a man on the moon. Without a doubt it also helped to inspire Roddenberry.
Though I can’t prove it, I’m sure Gene Roddenberry took this to heart, and he with with it, imaging not just landing a man on the moon, but sending a society (one that included Whites, Asians, Blacks, Russians and Vulcans) into the final frontier of the stars. (Such an inclusive society was undeniably inspired by a series Roddenberry was asked to write called Riverboat. Set in 1860s Mississippi, Roddenberry balked when he learned the producers didn’t want any Black people on the show. He argued with them about it until he lost his job). He began formulating Star Trek as early as 1964, imagining it as a Western in outer space, a so-called “Wagon Train to the Stars.” He told his friends he was modeling it after Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, fashioning it as both a suspenseful adventure story and a morality tale.
As Roddenberry was formulating his Star Trek idea, on January 27 1967, AS-204 (later designated Apollo 1 on April 24 of that year), a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test killed all three of the astronauts in the cabin; Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White II, and Roger Chaffee. It was a stark lesson for NASA, one that the space agency and the public at large would be reminded of more than once, but it did not lessen NASA’s resolve. They were determined to stick to JFK’s plan of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Less than two years later, on October 11, 1968, the Apollo program launched their first manned flight with Apollo 7, in which Wally Schirra, Walt Cunningham, and Donn Eisele orbited the planet with a live television broadcast from the mission. Three months later, in December, Apollo 8 made 10 lunar orbits in 20 hours.
Amid this backdrop of trying to beat the Russians to space, Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to MGM, and they liked it, but they didn’t make an offer. So, he took it to Desilu Productions, at the time they were most famous for I Love Lucy. To make a long story short, Roddenberry along with George Katz (head of programming at Desilu), took Star Trek to CBS, which ultimately passed. They took it to NBC, this time downplaying the sci-fi aspect of it, and fused three different storylines for three different episodes into the pilot. NBC bought Star Trek and planned to put it in their fall schedule, contracting Desilu for 13 episodes. On May 24, 1966 (almost five years to the day of JFK’s announcement to Congress), Star Trek went into production.
The first episode aired on Thursday, September 8, 1966, at 8:00 PM, introducing us to Captain James T. Kirk; half-human and half-Vulcan Spock; Sulu, the navigator; Scotty, the engineer; Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the ship’s doctor, and Uhura, the ship’s communication’s officer. Of all the races and species board the Enterprise, it was Uhura who audiences found the most shocking — she was a Black woman. (Later, she would get bored with the show and want to quit, and it was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who persuaded her to stay with the show when he told her how important it was that she was on it.)
It would be great to say the series was an instant hit, but that was not the case. Instead, Roddenberry was immediately concerned with the show’s historically low ratings. To say the show was ahead of its time would put it mildly. The second season ratings were worse than the first season, and for its third season, Star Trek was moved to a Friday night slot; a historically bad timeslot for any TV show with less than desirable ratings. Less than three years later, in February 1969, Star Trek was canceled.
Star Trek: TOS aired only 79 episodes, but apparently, that was all the show needed to start a fire in the public’s imagination– a fire that, in some part, still burns today. Was Star Trek the TV show that NASA engineers and technicians came home to watch at the end of the day? Was it the show that gave them inspiration on the days when nothing went right, or on the days when it seemed that to put a man on the moon was nothing more than folly? I’d like to think so. For sure I can say that the kids who were watching Star Trek were going to be the future employees at NASA. While their parents’ generation imagined putting a man on the moon at the height of their technology, for these kids it would be putting a man (and maybe even a woman) into the stars beyond the moon.
Five months later, JFK’s dream came true, and by then it wasn’t just his dream. Spurred on by the tales in Roddenberry’s Star Trek, JFK’s dream had become the nation’s dream. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Apollo 11 and took their first steps on the moon.
The Apollo program concluded with Apollo 17 in 1972, which put the first geologist on the moon (and to date, it is the last moon landing), who returned with 243.4 pounds of samples.
1973 saw the release of Star Trek: The Animated Series, which was notable mostly because the writers were not constrained by the budget of practical effects. They could write the craziest aliens and adventures they could imagine.
This was mirrored in real life with the craziest thing most people could have imagined at the time: the Apollo-Soyuz Project 1975, a joint Earth orbit mission between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (a feat and an event before Roddenberry’s Star Trek), would not only have seemed improbably, but downright impossible.
Emerging shortly after Star Trek: The Animated Series was NASA’s space shuttle program, which would launch a reusable (i.e. much less expensive way to travel into space) winged orbiter into space like a rocket, and return to Earth like an airplane. The concept had been explored as early as the late 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1972 that the program was formally commenced. In fact, although the first orbiter was originally planned to be named Constitution, a massive write-in campaign from fans of Star Trek convinced the White House to change the name to Enterprise. To great fanfare, Enterprise was rolled out on September 21, 1976, and it later conducted a successful series of glide approach and landing tests in 1977; which were the first validation of the design.
As this transpired, and with the runaway success of another sci-fi movie called Star Wars, Gene Roddenberry was planning Star Trek’s return; this time to the big screen. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released by Paramount on December 7, 1979, and it saw the return of Captain Kirk and crew on a brand new adventure that was bigger than anything Roddenberry could have ever done on TV. Alas, much like the TV series, Star Trek: The Motion Picture did not fare well with critics.
No matter how much or little the critics liked the movie, they could not stop the power of imagination and fortitude that Star Trek gave rise to. On April 12, 1981, the first new orbiter, the space shuttle Columbia, launched from Kennedy Space Station at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Over the next five years, NASA launched several more missions from Kennedy Space Station, during which time Paramount released two more Star Trek movies: in 1982 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (which included a call back to an episode in TOS), and in 1984, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.
It was in 1986 that NASA was again reminded of the dangers of the space program when the agency lost its first shuttle, Challenger, on January 28, 1986. It was a mission that had gained national attention because, for the first time, NASA was going to send a civilian into space; a teacher named Christa McAuliffe. The public interest generated from this was enormous. Also, NASA was planning to broadcast lessons from space, it was a mission aimed directly to kids, and their parents were hoping to instill the same sense of wonder that the space program had instilled in them when they were kids. However, the mission was constantly delayed because of cold weather in Florida at Cape Canaveral. Finally, though, the mission was given a go. Televisions were wheeled into classrooms all across the nation so the kids could watch the launch. It truly became an event. I was 10 years old at the time, but I was at P.E. at the time of the launch, so I did not see it live, but I would see it that night on TV again, and again, and again.
72 seconds into the mission, Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts immediately.
When I came back from P.E., my fifth grade teacher, Ms. Vega, told us the mission had been delayed again. “Well, it’s been delayed a lot, actually,” she said. (When she told us what had happened, I couldn’t help but think that the mission hadn’t been delayed, that “delayed” was not the right word. I can’t remember to what word my 10-year-old mind took me to, but I knew “delayed” was not at all correct.)
It was an event that shook not just the program, but the nation to the core, especially the nation’s children, as NASA had decided to include a teacher in this shuttle mission. Indeed, there was an address that night from President Ronald Regan who spoke directly to the children of the United States.
Later that year, it was Star Trek that would provide more healing from the disaster of the Challenger. On November 26, Paramount released Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which the crew of the starship Enterprise returned to modern day San Francisco. Before the movie, though, there was a dedication to the crew of Challenger.
I remember seeing that movie in the theater. I had an upset stomach at the time (something I was going through that may or may not have been related to my parents’ divorce), and maybe I missed that opening dedication. It wasn’t until several years later (as in within the last five years, when I was showing that movie to my girlfriend), that I first noticed the dedication. I was taken back to a boy of 11 years old, and I was immediately touched. I can only imagine how it touched and comforted the nation at the time.
I like to think that some of those in the audience were kids who watched TOS when it premiered on NBC. I also like to think of the parents who especially wanted to take their children, who had undeniably been scared and shook by the Challenger disaster, to see Star Trek in order to alleviate their fears and to spark their imagination; just as TOS had done to them when they were children.
While NASA and the Star Trek franchise would help to fuel, push and drive each other, they would also help to heal each other. After Challenger, the space shuttle program was put on hold, but our imaginations would not be so easily quieted. In 1987, the first Star Trek show in 13 years, Star Trek: The Next Generation, premiered on September 28, 1987, drawing 27 million viewers with its two-hour pilot, “Encounter at Far Point.”
(The biggest difference in the new opening was changing the iconic “Where no man has gone before” to the more gender equivalent “Where no ONE has gone before.”)
TNG introduced us to a brand new Enterprise, which was larger, aster and more powerful than the original. It had also been given a sleek new design. Set in 2364, the series takes place 100 years after the original, introducing us to a new crew as well. Among them were the Captain Jean Luc Picard; First Officer William Riker; Geordi La Forge; Worf, a Klingon (though they were the antagonists of TOS, by now the humans and Klingons have a shaky alliance); Dr. Beverly Crusher; Lt. Cmdr. Deanna Troi, the ship’s counselor; and Data, the ship’s android.
The series would last for seven seasons, ending in 1994, and it would play in the background as NASA found its footing and got the shuttle program back into gear when it launched Discovery in September 1988. I was in 8th grade then, and my math teacher, Mr. Rae, told my first period math class that the launch was successful and went off without a hitch. It wasn’t in my mind, and I wasn’t worried about it, but it was a relief to hear.
With America back in space and Star Trek back on TV, the two would again fuel and drive each other, just as they had always done. In 1993, Star Trek released Deep Space Nine, and in 1995, Star Trek: Voyager premiered. These two shows were different than the previous format of a Star Trek TV show, which concerned the crew of the Enterprise on a mission to seek out strange new life forms. Deep Space Nine was set aboard a space station, and Star Trek: Voyager was about a ship trying to return home. DS9 ended its run in 1999, and Star Trek: Voyager returned home in 2001. Later that year, Star Trek: Enterprise premiered, concerning the crew of the first ship with Warp 5 capabilities and their exploration of deep space outside the solar system.
The show was not as successful as the last three Star Trek series, and it was derided for its theme song, the first Star Trek show to feature one.
In 2003, tragedy struck NASA again. On February 1, while returning to earth, the shuttle, Columbia, disintegrated upon reentry, killing all seven crew members; a mere 13 minutes before it was expected to land.
The space shuttle program was grounded for another two years, and the further construction of the International Space Station was delayed. The next shuttle wouldn’t launch until July 26, 2005 at 10:39 PM when space shuttle Discovery (once again carrying us as a nation back into the final frontier) “cleared the tower.”
By this time, Star Trek: Enterprise had gone off the air, ending its run on May 13 after 98 episodes (which was still more episodes than TOS). It was the first time in 18 years that there was not a single Star Trek show on the air.
Soon the space program would see its end, too. (Though not before finally sending a teacher to space: Barbara Morgan in 2007 aboard space shuttle Endeavour.)
Though it had been extended many times beyond its initially planned 15-year lifespan, President George W. Bush formally scheduled it for mandatory retirement in 2010. The final space shuttle launch was that of Atlantis on July 8, 2011. Out of the five fully functional orbiters built, three remain. One, the Endeavour (the youngest of the shuttles as it was built to replace Challenger), resides here in LA at the California Science Center; if you have not yet seen it, I urge you to do so. It is at once larger and smaller than you imagine, and, except for the underside, so much softer (almost like cardboard), which you cannot understand until you see it.
The Enterprise, which was used for atmospheric flights tests, but never orbital flight, had many parts taken out of it for use on other orbiters. It was later visually restored, and is now on display in NYC at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
Since the retirement of the space shuttle program, NASA, which still exists as an agency, is largely silent. Most of the news of space travel is being relegated to private firms like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s Space X (who has just launched his company’s largest rocket called the Falcon Heavy, complete with one of his own Teslas into space with a nod to Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy right on the dashboard).
However, there is no serious talk of returning to space. The moon hangs there in orbit around us, with relics of past missions dotting its surface. The solar system lays beyond it, and recently the satellite Cassinni completed its mission when it crashed onto the surface of Saturn. There is from time to time background discussion on a mission to Mars, and there was a very good science-based movie about what would happen if such a mission went badly…
Again, there is no real talk about returning man to the moon, to the stars and beyond. Why is that?
If you ask me it’s because we’ve gotten too busy arguing amongst ourselves, too caught up talking about walls and athletes kneeling during the National Anthem. Star Wars is back, and that’s great. Even though, in all honesty, I prefer Star Wars to Star Trek (but there is a big difference between the two). While Star Wars has always been a space western (with subtle forays into mysticism and Eastern philosophy), Star Trek only started off as a space western. It has since grown to become more of a truly serious look into what it might be like to live among the stars. Sure, it still has some space western aspects to it (as it must if it wants to attract audiences, and that is part of the downfall of this new, alternate timeline JJ Abrams inspired Star Trek cinematic universe), but the core of Star Trek has always been intelligence and morality; involving science and wonder.
This is why it’s important for Star Trek to return to TV. We’ve become so distracted by the white noise of our daily lives, and so divided over what we all think is important, that maybe we’ve forgotten what is truly important: to work together towards a goal that is bigger than all of us.
To boldly go where no one has gone before.