The Continuing Scientific Relevance Of SciFi

When the dusty model of the USS Enterprise was given to the Smithsonian Air and Space museum in the 1970s, it was nothing more than a shell from a forgotten moment in time.

She's a beauty in person.  But don't just take my word for it...(Photo by Jessica L. Tozer)

She’s a beauty in person. But don’t just take my word for it…(Photo by Jessica L. Tozer)

Paramount just handed it to the museum.  To them, it was unimportant.  A remnant of a failed three-year TV series.  They handed it over, most likely assuming that it would sit in a warehouse somewhere, collecting dust on a shelf as the years peeled by.

But that was no ordinary eleven-foot-long model. 

That ship was a symbol of hope.  Of peace.  Of equality.  Of a future waiting to be actualized.  The Enterprise would grow to become one of the most iconic and treasured symbols in science fiction culture.

It’s amazing how something as small as a model spaceship can mean so much to so many.  Amazing, but not surprising.

You see, we humans like our symbols.  From the swirls and statues of the ancient world, to the banners of the mid-evil armies, to the crests of colleges and sports teams, to iconic superhero emblems, to even the branding of large companies, humanity is filled with identifiable signs that mark the trail through our history.

Science fiction is no different.

Dr. Margaret Weitkamp is the curator collection of social and cultural dimensions of spaceflight at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.  She says that after the Enterprise was cleaned up and put in the Air and Space museum, it became quite apparent that they a) had something very precious on their hands and b) that it was going to need a lot of TLC if it was going to stand the test of time.

“We had it in display and it was hanging, though it was not designed to hang,” she explained.  “After doing some x-ray work they discovered that there were some stress fractures in the wood – it’s made almost entirely of wood and plaster – and it is now supported on display.”

She went on to say that this ship, this mighty vessel, meant the world to the fans of Star Trek.  She saw people express support in all sorts of ways for this ship, treating it not like a relic of the past, but a symbol of the future.

“To the fans, the Enterprise was theirs,” she said.  “We were just entrusted with taking care of it.”

Eventually the museum had more than just the ship to preserve for future generations.  Recently I had the opportunity to take a look at some of the unique and exciting artifacts in their collection at the recent #SIBeamUp event at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

Including these little guys.

Just don't feed them and we won't have a problem. Unless you're a Klingon. Then you're on your own, pal. (Photo by Jessica L. Tozer)

Just don’t feed them and we won’t have a problem. Unless you’re a Klingon. Then you’re on your own, pal. (Photo by Jessica L. Tozer)

Ah yes.  The Tribbles.  Those funny, fuzzy little things that make Klingons squirm and starship captains cringe.  These Tribbles made for quite an interesting plot in their debut episode “Trouble with Tribbles” from Star Trek’s original series.  These were two of five specimens that the museum has in their collection.  Yes, only five.  If you can believe it.

These one-of-a-kind TV props are only one of the many things that the museum takes great care to preserve.  They use special acid-free gloves, special preservation boxes, and adhere to extremely strict rules regarding the handling of these Quadrotriticale-loving fur balls.

So why, do you ask, are these awesome iconic SciFi symbols in a museum instead of, say, in a novelty shop somewhere?

Because for as much as these are elements of a fictional show, they (and the things like them) represent more than just items of fandom. They are often seen as agents of scientific and social change. 

I’ve written before about how the military is turning these amazing SciFi gadgets into reality.  We’re working on lasers, er, directed energy weapons.  The Naval Research Lab has a sensor that works like a tricorder.  It’s not so much of a bold claim to say that science fiction is the aperture for science future.

But it’s more than just that.  For as much as shows like Star Trek inspire scientists and inventors to create those very things that we knew and hoped would become a reality, they also inspire people to view each other differently.

Starting with the dream that the universe would one day be a place where everyone was equal.  For Star Trek, that started with the military.

THE FUTURE WHERE ALL MEN AND WOMEN ARE CREATED EQUAL

By the time Star Trek aired its first episode in 1966, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was already a seasoned military veteran.  In 1941, he joined the United States Army Air Corps (which became the United States Army Air Forces).  He flew planes in World War II, totaling 89 missions until he was honorably discharged at the rank of captain in 1945.  During that time he saw people of all types in the military, pulling together for the sake of the mission, patriotism and each other.  It was this social foundation upon which he built his future military premise.

“It speaks to some basic human needs that there is a tomorrow, that it’s not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids.  Human beings built them because they’re clever and they work hard. Star Trek is about those things.” – Gene Roddenberry

Gene Roddenberry’s view for the world had a strong cultural impact, different than what was often thought at the time.  I mean, we’re talking about the swinging 1960s.  The Mad Men universe of gender separation and racial segregation.  Social reform was taking the shape by way of civil rights activism.  Roddenberry believed that the future would have evolved as much in science and technology as it would in social reform (miniskirts and beehives not withstanding).

“If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear.”  — Gene Roddenberry

Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura (in TOS), often recalls the story about the time she was thinking of quitting Star Trek to return to Broadway, and how it was Martin Luther King, Jr. who talked her out of it.  A fan of Star Trek, MLK Jr. mentioned to Nichelle that her show was one of the few he and his wife would allow their children to watch, and that she was a symbol for reform and change.  That she was an inspiration.  That her work on a science fiction show was helping to change the attitude of a nation, of a world.

So she stayed.  I mean, who could say no to that?

Only Captain Kirk could be a force for social change in a shiny toga. (Copyright picture © 1968 Paramount Pictures)

Only Captain Kirk could be a force for social change in a shiny toga. (From “Plato’s Stepchildren”, Copyright picture © 1968 Paramount Pictures)

As a result, she would go on to film the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”, the first example of a scripted inter-racial kiss between a white man and black woman on American television.

How’s that for social change?

It was a vision of successful racial integration.  Men, women of all races working together as equals.  Something that would carry on through the series.

Whoopi Goldberg asked to have her role as Guinan on Star Trek TNG.  She has been quoted as saying that she too, loved Star Trek as a kid, and that the show was the first indication that “black people make it to the future”.  Geordi is blind and he flies a spaceship.  Worf is an alien race that was once an enemy, serving proudly on the bridge of the Enterprise.  Data is an android.  I could go on and on.

When it comes to Star Trek, differences are celebrated and diversity is encouraged.  Not a bad future to look forward to, eh?

THE SPACE RACE CONTINUES

Dan Hendrickson is the Director for Space Systems, a company that designs and builds satellites and spacecraft systems for commercial and government customers around the world.

“I get to work with your space companies directly, which in case you didn’t know was pretty exciting,” Dan said at the recent #SIBeamUp event.

There is a disturbing misconception, he says, that the space program is ending.

“It’s not true.  It’s actually quite the opposite.  There are more space vehicles being made now than in any other part in history.  Young people might think that we have no future in space, no exploration future.  That is also not true.”

That’s why, he says, it makes sense to bring Star Trek and space exploration together.  Especially now, with the new movie out in theaters and a renewed interest in the series.  Dan thinks there might be a really neat way to connect the exciting space program with Star Trek.

“We don’t have the warp drive, but the imagination, ingenuity, innovation is alive in space exploration today,” he says.

And that plan is already being set in motion.  Voyager is leaving the solar system.  It’s the only man-made device to do that.  We are literally boldly going where no one has gone before.  The International Space Station is constantly manned with a human presence.  It’s been going on for 11 years, which is 7 years longer than the Enterprise’s mission in space in TOS.

That’s why Space Systems worked together with NASA (and apparently Optimus Prime) for the project Support Exploration called “We Are The Explorers“.

The fundraising for this effort was a grassroots movement, Dan says.  So many people across the country stood up and say that they want to have a say in the space program.

To me that says that the dream is not only there, but alive and well, thanks to that hopeful human spirit.  The video says that we don’t know what new discoveries lie ahead, but that “this is the very reason we must go”.

A LOOK THROUGH TIME

The uses of history in Star Trek are often obvious.  For a show set in the future, it sure does explore the paths of our history.  Now this is not unique to Star Trek, certainly.  Doctor Who has been known to spend an awful lot of time dragging the TARDIS through some dark parts of our past.

In spite of the Temporal Prime Directive, characters often monkey around with the timeline.  But for as much as we all enjoy a jaunt through our exciting past, there’s something to be learned in the why of this plot device.

“Real historical backdrops or cultures are used to develop alien cultures that mirror human cultures,” said Nancy Reagin, historian and editor of the book Star Trek and History.  “Those aliens then use historical cultures as shorthand for people; like swastikas, gladiators, gangsters, etc.”

This is designed to teach lessons, in many cases, without it being directly obvious.  Themes regarding the treatment of Native Americans (“The Paradise Syndrome”) or regarding the arms race (“A Private Little War”).  Even episodes about Chicago gangsters in the 1920s (“A Piece of the Action”).

Cultures or objects for our own history are often used in passing, she argues.  Some themes, however, are wildly apparent. Star Trek supporting the Endangered Species Act, for example.  As a matter of fact there was a whole movie – The Voyage Home – dedicated to a time travel theme where the crew saves the humpback whales (including thwarting the whaling ship with the Bird of Prey).

Even in the new movies (no spoilers, of course), the Enterprise thwarts (or is a victim of) terrorism plots, reflecting the time in which it was made.

It’s interesting how science fiction can be relevant by citing our past.  But science fiction can do that.  That’s one of the beauties of the genre.

And speaking of the magic of science fiction, let’s not forget the technologies.

THE GADGETS AND GIZMOS

“Gene Roddenberry was a futurist,” Nancy said, “and the first season tried to depict where technology was headed.”

Technology that would someday become a reality.  From Bluetooth headsets, to iPads, to cell phones and more.  Star Trek’s universe is endlessly fascinating for us because it gives us the inspiration to attempt and create amazing technological realities.

Star Trek may have altered a timeline; it’s altered my career and possibly humanity,” said Mike Gold, the chief counsel at Bigelow Aerospace, also a participant of the #SiBeamUp event.  His view on the relevance of science fiction and particularly Star Trek is not so much how you feel about the show, but what you will do about it.

“Don’t just sit there on the couch enjoying Star Trek, wishing it was real,” he said.  “Go out there and make it a reality.  Fandom means more than just watching, it means going out there to achieve want you like.  Nothing is impossible.”

I think that science fiction has a continuing relevance not just in scientific exploration but also in social progression and reformation.  That we can accept people and cultures from our own planet will determine how well we will be able to accept people and cultures from other planets (if and when that time does come).  Seeing the future military as something like Star Fleet means that humanity has the chance to be well and truly accepting.

And that, dear readers, is something worth believing in.

“Reality is incredibly larger, infinitely more exciting, than the flesh and blood vehicle we travel in here. If you read science fiction, the more you read it the more you realize that you and the universe are part of the same thing. Science knows still practically nothing about the real nature of matter, energy, dimension, or time; and even less about those remarkable things called life and thought. But whatever the meaning and purpose of this universe, you are a legitimate part of it. And since you are part of the all that is, part of its purpose, there is more to you than just this brief speck of existence. You are just a visitor here in this time and this place, a traveler through it.”  — Gene Roddenberry

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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