50 years of Star Trek: Boldly inspiring generations of scientists

Scientists from CalTech, NASA, Boeing and WPI all say the 1960s Sci-Fi show fueled their passions

star trek
Credit: Thinkstock/Wikimedia

For Robert Hurt, some of his earliest memories are of sitting with his dad in their den watching the original Star Trek and dreaming of space travel and astronomy.

Now 50 years later, Hurt is a physicist working at the California Institute of Technology on NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, peering deep into areas of space that have always been hidden from us.

Like Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the starship USS Enterprise, Hurt is a space explorer.

After Star Trek first aired - 50 years ago today - on Sept. 8, 1966, people could envision a time when the human race would explore space and "boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before." The show, which ran for three seasons, also began to inspire those kids in PJs or hanging out with friends watching Kirk and Mr. Spock meet aliens and explore distant planets.

For many researchers today, their passion for science was fed by the original series, along with the later spin-offs and movies that followed.

Robert Hurt, from CalTech Robert Hurt

Robert Hurt, a physicist working at the California Institute of Technology.

"It really fueled our interests," said Hurt, adding that there's a good chance he wouldn't be a scientist today without Star Trek's inspiration. "One of the things that was most formative for me as a child was that...with Star Trek, science isn't something we fear. The second in command of the Enterprise was the science officer. That was a really powerful symbol growing up. Science doesn't create monsters. Science is what we use to face problems and solve problems."

That original show has been followed by five more TV series, including The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. And the franchise isn't dormant. A seventh television series, Discovery, is expected to begin airing on CBS All Access in January.

There also have been 13 Star Trek films, including this year's latest movie Star Trek Beyond.

All served to create a mythology around space exploration, multi-cultural diversity and cooperation and an optimism around science.

John Smith, who does trajectory design for outer planets missions at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said Star Trek was one of the very first shows he can remember watching as a kid. It influenced his career, as well as his outlook on life.

John Smith John Smith

John Smith, who does trajectory design for outer planets missions at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"It drove me towards aerospace engineering," Smith said, noting that he's seen each of the original episodes at least a dozen times. "For that time period, there were few shows that reflected the optimism and the acceptance that was present in that show.... It was very revolutionary for the day and it was present throughout Star Trek."

For Lee Sheldon, who today is a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) but was a writer and producer on the fourth season of The Next Generation, it was important to carry the message that science is cool and important throughout the different series.

wpileesheldon Lee Sheldon

Lee Sheldon, a WPI professor who was a writer/producer on the fourth season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

He also noted that in his conversations with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, the people involved in the shows were conscious of the influence the series and movies had on kids and on the scientific community.

"Oh, I think we were all very aware," Sheldon said. "Even though it's set centuries in the future, we were very aware that the science should be as good as it could be. If we were going to speculate, it should be an extrapolation of science. It set goals for scientists today."

Star Trek writers and actors even went out to talk to students about the importance of science. "Everyone was very aware that we had something important to say and that we could affect the future," said Sheldon. "I think a lot of kids were incredibly inspired."

Seeing that you could have an exciting job working in science was an 'Aha' kind of moment for Emily L. Howard, a senior technical fellow with The Boeing Company.

"Many of the women were scientists on the show," she said. "I don't know that I knew I was destined for a future in science, but seeing women who were solving problems and using their creativity absolutely inspired me."

The real-life Apollo space program, the first moon landing in 1969 and physicist Sally Ride's becoming the first female NASA astronaut, offered a lot of positive scientific influences for Howard. But the fictional world of Star Trek carried its own importance.

"I can't give all that power to a single show, but it certainly helped fuel my interest," she said. "There were other things happening at the time, but at that young [age] to be exposed to these amazing possibilities about the future, planted a seed very deeply in me."

It planted a similar seed in Marc Rayman, the director and chief engineer of NASA's Dawn mission.

Marc Rayman

Marc Rayman, director and chief engineer of NASA's Dawn mission.

Rayman has been a serious Trekkie since the original show began when he was in the seventh grade. The first class he ever skipped in his life was when a Star Trek movie was opening at same time as his graduate class in statistical mechanics.

He would not only go on to himself be involved with spacecraft that explore alien worlds. And when he worked on NASA's Deep Space 1 program, the first interplanetary mission to use low-thrust propulsion technology, Rayman began calling it ion propulsion -- in honor of Star Trek.

"Star Trek didn't so much inspire me, but it fueled the passions that were already burning within me," he said. "Star Trek showed the future I wanted to be a part of.... It would never have occurred to me that in the year 2016 -- 50 years after the first show was on -- that the show would have that kind of longevity. That's a testament to how powerful it was and how much it meant to so many people."

Rayman said he found out a few years ago that he was working with a colleague who didn't know the original series or the spinoffs.

"You kind of wonder how JPL could even hire a guy like that," he said, laughing. "You'd think NASA would be a little more discriminating. Apart from that he's a good guy, but this major deficiency in his education was troubling."

Rayman has set about "rectifying this major flaw."

Robert Federking Robert Federking

Robert Frederking, an associate dean for Carnegie Mellon University's school of computer science.

That kind of education wouldn't have been an issue for Mike Ciaraldi, a professor of computer science and robotics engineering at WPI. Ciaraldi still remembers watching the first episode of Star Trek, "The Man Trap," when it premiered.

For him, science fiction in general, and Star Trek in particular, is all about using your brain to solve problems and how a hero avoids a fight or outright calamity by out-thinking an opponent.

Star Trek also let kids know there were other people interested in science.

Robert Frederking, an associate dean for Carnegie Mellon University's school of computer science, had a fan club membership -- and he still owns a set of blueprints of the starship enterprise.

"It made me think about things like were would warp drives really be possible and would transporters work. It made me think," he said. "It certainly encouraged me. I think it's safe to say I still think it's interesting. Like Spock, I would say it's fascinating."

This story, "50 years of Star Trek: Boldly inspiring generations of scientists" was originally published by Computerworld.

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