Star Trek Discovery premiered last week. This week is the 30th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Whatever your opinions of the new series or of CBS’s distribution methods, that fact gets me thinking about one thing in particular. Star Trek taught us that space is awesome. When I discussed real world discoveries inspired by Star Trek a few weeks ago, I realized that Star Trek and the space program warranted an entire post of its own. Which is this post.
The USS Enterprise was following in a tradition of naval vessels with that name. So it would have been a good name for the first shuttle in NASA’s new program anyway. But originally it was going to be called the Constitution. Then the Star Trek fans happen. A fanbase who happens to be really good at letter writing campaigns. What was a president to do?
Once they had the new name, NASA definitely embraced it. Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek cast even attended the rollout ceremony. Maybe for PR. But more likely because scientists are a bunch of nerds.
Just… Nichelle Nichols.
The entire cast was quite supportive of the space program. But it was Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) who was the most involved. NASA wanted to put women and people of colour into space, but were having trouble coming up with suitable candidates for the astronaut program. They turned to Nichols for help due to her decided prominence. She agreed, knowing full well that they were using her and intending to use them right back. She told them upfront that she was going to find them more qualified candidates than they knew what to do with and that if they still came back with the same old bunch of white men they always had before, she would file a class action suit. And one of the other NASA officials immediately promised to join her.
Nichols went around talking to military pilots and scientists looking for people interested in signing up with the program. Before she got involved, NASA had a few hundred potential candidates. She went out and recruited thousands. Her work resulted in a dozen woman and minority candidates being selected for the program. Sally Ride (first American woman in space) and Guion Bluford (first African American in space) were among her many recruits.
She also spoke with a Navy test pilot named Charles Bolden. He decided he was going to see how the first batch of her recruits turned out. In the meantime, he took additional science courses to make himself a more qualified candidate. Which definitely worked out for him, as he wound up being the Chief Administrator for NASA from 2009 to 2017.
If you ever have the chance to hear her speak, take it. I’ve been lucky enough to attend two of her panels at various conventions and here her tell these stories herself and it was an amazing experience.
It’s no great surprise that the first African American woman in space was inspired by Lt. Uhura on the bridge. She also has a rather unique claim to fame: She was the first actual astronaut to appear in an episode of Star Trek. When LeVar Burton heard that she was a fan of the show, he had a most excellent idea. There was no way she was going to refuse when invited to appear in a scene of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She played a bridge officer named Lt. Palmer, who wore gold and thus survived the episode.
Two other astronauts also appeared in the Enterprise finale.
Cosplay in Spaaaaaace
Astronauts on the International Space Station are permitted some personal items. It’s only fair, since they’re up there for so long. Samantha Cristoforetti decided to use part of her allowance for something that I suspect many astronauts had considered at some point. She got to wear a Starfleet uniform (command red, naturally) in space.
And just to enhance the level of reference, she chose to share the image when the Dragon capsule was bringing her an espresso maker. Because “There’s coffee in that nebula… ehm I mean Dragon“. I particularly appreciated her Janeway reference because as a teenager, Kathryn Janeway was the first woman I’d ever seen on TV who got as excited about science as I did.
Star Trek was Roddenberry’s dream of a possible future. It was probably inevitable that the people at NASA took one look at it and knew they wanted to make it so. Engage.