'Star Trek' at 50: How a space saga inspired a generation of scientists, engineers and writers

Enterprise bridgeAn exhibit at Seattle’s EMP museum features costumes and props from 50 years of “Star Trek” shows, including the bridge from the original Starship Enterprise set. (Credit: Brady Harvey / EMP Museum)

Fifty years after “Star Trek” made its debut, the science-fiction saga’s biggest legacy may well be its inspirational impact on millions of scientists and engineers, writers and fans over the decades.

Humanity hasn’t yet invented the starships and transporters that are commonplace in the TV shows and movies, but we do have plenty of people who are exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and laying plans to boldly go where no one has gone before.

We asked a variety of space-savvy luminaries to reflect on the 50th anniversary of “Star Trek,” which is being celebrated today at Seattle’s EMP Museum. Here are six of the responses:

Brooks Peck

Brooks Peck is curator of the EMP Museum, which is featuring an exhibit titled “Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds.”

What impact would you say “Star Trek” has had on society, and the way we look at space efforts?

Brooks Peck (GeekWire photo)Brooks Peck (GeekWire photo)

“Coming as it did, when the space race was heating up, ‘Star Trek’ was in the perfect position to capture the public imagination about the possibilities of space travel beyond the near term. ‘Star Trek’ became solidly linked in the public mind with space. The best evidence of this is the fan-led letter-writing campaign that convinced President Gerald Ford to name the first space shuttle Enterprise.

“To this day, ‘Star Trek’ is frequently used as a comparison when people (especially the popular press) speculate about interstellar travel. As in: Will we meet the likes of the Klingons? What will the Captain Kirks of the future wear/eat/see, etc.? Potential Earth-analog planets are called ‘Class M.’ The methods and mechanics of space travel in ‘Star Trek’ are so well known, writers can refer to the show as a jumping-off point to introduce new topics.”

Has “Star Trek” had any influence on your own career?

“Yes, in that ‘Star Trek’ introduced me to science fiction, and interest in science fiction sent me on a path toward entertainment journalism and then curating science fiction museum exhibitions. Science fiction is a deep passion of mine, and ‘Star Trek’ is the wellspring.”

Kirk, Picard or Janeway?

“Janeway, absolutely. She was cut off from all the support of Starfleet and the Federation for seven years, and had to make tough decisions about when to uphold the standards of the Federation even when breaking those standards might have brought her crew home sooner. In a popular culture context, Janeway is extraordinary for being unextraordinary. She was the first female captain to lead a ‘Star Trek’ show, and even in the mid-’90s that was No Big Deal. We evaluate her leadership based on her personality, not on her gender.”

Saadia Pekkanen

Professor Saadia Pekkanen is associate director and founding director of the Ph.D. program at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies. She has a special interest in outer space governance, security and policy.

Saadia PekkanenSaadia Pekkanen (via UW)

Has “Star Trek” had any influence on your own career? 

“I grew up in a number of different countries as the child of a United Nations official. ‘Star Trek’ was the one constant across all societies. No matter where you were, everyone had heard of the show! And frankly, who doesn’t want to be Number 1? Or Captain?! For me, maybe for others, too, ‘Star Trek’ was and is an inspiring vision of humanity. So, career – I am sure that happened in some subliminal way.”

How far away are we from interstellar travel and the world of “Star Trek”? It’s a particularly interesting question in light of the news about Proxima Centauri b. Is there any chance that we’ll have a fix on interstellar travel by the 22nd century, or will we just have to hope that the Vulcans stop by and show us how to build a warp drive?

“Vulcans would be great, or the Proxima Centaurians! On interstellar travel, I think for sure we are going to get there. This will happen in stages, though. I suspect that space robots will get there first for safety and infrastructure purposes.”

Kirk, Picard or Janeway?


Greg Bear

Greg Bear is an award-winning science-fiction writer with more than 40 books to his name. His recent works include “Killing Titan,” an interplanetary war novel; and “Just Over the Horizon,” a collection of short stories.

Impact on society and the space effort?

Greg BearGreg Bear

“‘Star Trek’ had minimal impact at first, but then grew and grew over the next 13 years in syndication and finally as a series of successful movies. The impact began to expand in the ’70s, with millions of people being exposed to the example of a multiracial, diversity-sensitive civilization and crew facing the universe at large with sympathetic and rational responses — mixed with a tincture of good old human emotion.”

Influence on your own career?

“I was a devout ‘Star Trek’ fan and viewer through the first two seasons, less so the third — but the third got ‘Star Trek’ into syndication. I met Bjo Trimble and many of the ‘Star Trek’ personalities in the late 1960s, drew illustrations for her Concordance, and eventually wrote for the LA Times about science fiction in films and had lunch with Gene Roddenberry. Later, Alan Brennert and I pitched to what was supposed to become the second TV series, but that became the first movie instead. A few years after that, I wrote a Star Trek novel, ‘Corona.’ And I’ve been fond of ‘Star Trek’ ever since.”

How far away are we from interstellar travel and the world of “Star Trek”?

“Pretty far, though we keep discovering new and interesting ways to be hopeful. Having a benevolent hand up would be very useful — and very dangerous. I’m not sure we’re ready to spread ourselves across the stars.”

Kirk, Picard or Janeway?

“I like Kirk, myself. Bit of a traditionalist.”

Peter McGrath

Peter McGrath is global sales and marketing director for space exploration at the Boeing Co.

Impact on society and the space effort?

“Perhaps the greatest contribution of ‘Star Trek’ is showing how we could all live here on Earth. Gene Roddenberry developed the concept of ‘infinite diversity in infinite combinations,’ and he cast the show with not only a diverse crew but a diverse bridge crew, working together for humanity’s greater good. He made their mission focus on scientific discovery rather than conquest. They would fight when they had to, but there was a respect for life and other cultures embodied in references to Starfleet’s Prime Directive, of not interfering in the development of other cultures. In a future where interstellar space travel becomes technologically feasible, it will require people of many skills and backgrounds to successfully complete the journey, and if they encounter other life forms we’d hope to be seen as coming in peace. Until then, that vision serves us well today on our own planet.

Peter McGrath IIPeter McGrath II (via LinkedIn)

‘Star Trek’ continues to have a significant impact on society because it inspires us to dream big, especially today as NASA, Boeing and its partners prepare for deep space exploration. The primary vehicle for this endeavor will be NASA’s new Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever, which will carry a crew capsule to Mars and beyond. It promises to open up new opportunities for scientific research and technical innovation. And because it is designed to evolve over time, it will allow America to continue as the world’s leader in space exploration for decades to come.

“As NASA focuses on completing the Space Launch System, private companies are taking over the job of ferrying crews and cargo into low Earth orbit. With NASA’s help, these companies are building new spacecraft and inventing new flight technologies.”

How far away are we from interstellar travel and the world of “Star Trek”?

“It is hard to imagine a 22nd century without interstellar travel. And historians could view NASA’s Space Launch System as the most important step in the early days of deep space exploration. As we harness what we learn from a journey to Mars, and develop even greater technology, the future of space travel is unlimited. And that is the bold legacy of ‘Star Trek.’”

Kirk, Picard or Janeway?

“Like all leaders, each of the ‘Star Trek’ captains had their strengths and weaknesses. All of them had the ability to think strategically. They understood the rules, not in a bureaucratic way but enough to know how to work within them, and when to push to the edge or slightly over. They were decisive, looked out for their people but understood the gravity their decisions could have on the people under their command. In most instances, they worked toward a greater good, even when that meant focusing on the well-being of an individual. What each built paved the way for the ones that followed, with James Kirk’s improvisational abilities giving way to Jean-Luc Picard’s and Benjamin Sisko’s diplomacy and Kathryn Janeway’s resourcefulness.”

Ray Ramadorai

Ray Ramadorai is principal avionics engineer at Planetary Resources, a company based in Redmond, Wash., that focuses on Earth observation and asteroid mining.

Impact on society and the space effort?

Ray Ramadorai (via Planetary Resources)Ray Ramadorai (via Planetary Resources)

“‘Star Trek’ set the tone for what a modern society would and should look like.  It has often been commented that Star Trek represented a much more diverse community than the one that existed when it was being made.  By tying the future to that view of a diverse society, it created the expectation that society would change to match as the people who watched Star Trek grew up.  That expectation extended beyond the society to the technology as well.  So much of the technology we have now reflects the assumption that it could be developed and should exist.  That was set in the minds of many technologists and entrepreneurs by watching the series and imagining how to get there.”

Any influence on your own career?

Data as a character was particularly appealing to me, growing up.  The idea that a consciousness with human characteristics could be created from something other than a biological process deeply affected how I think about the progression of computer technology.  It has impacted how I think about the design of computer systems and architecture, with a focus on being able to model and mimic biological systems.”

How far away are we from interstellar travel and the world of “Star Trek”?

“In my darker moments I fear that faster-than-light travel will never be possible or practical.  If so, it makes for a very lonely galaxy/universe.  That having been said, Proxima Centauri b represents the first tangible target that might be possible given the technology we can develop/envision.  By having a real target, it makes the possibility of humanity undertaking that project much more likely and tangible.  I could see an interstellar project in the next 34 years that at least gets started on its way there.”

Kirk, Picard or Janeway?

“Picard. It was not easy for him, but he persisted.”

Sean McClinton

Sean McClinton founded Space Entrepreneurs in 2014 to support entrepreneurs with space-related business ideas in Seattle and Puget Sound. He’s also the founder and chief travel experience expert at SpaceToTravel.

Impact on society and your own career?

“I have good memories of watching the original TV series and movies with my dad growing up.  ‘Star Trek’ was far more influential on my life than ‘Star Wars.’ ‘Star Wars’ was mainly about the toys for me as a kid, but ‘Star Trek’ had this family connection – we all liked it. In hindsight, knowing what I know about Roddenberry, I think in terms of social issues, he was a visionary, and he was a good storyteller, so I think that made ‘Star Trek’ more meaningful for people.

“On the flip side, I didn’t really get into the space industry until about six or seven years ago.  What I’ve learned since is that for the general public, when they think about space, it usually exists either in the realm of government or science fiction.  As such, they tend to write it off as something that is out of their realm of their possibility, which is challenging when you’re trying to promote ‘real’ space, i.e., commercial space. You could look at ‘Star Trek’ as detrimental in that sense. And to their credit, some of it is out of the realm of possibility.”

How far away are we from interstellar travel and the world of “Star Trek”?

Sean McClintonSean McClinton (via LinkedIn)

“I don’t think I’ll see that in my lifetime. I think we’ll see huge development in low-Earth-orbit infrastructure, lunar and Martian colonies, and possibly further human travel in the solar system like Jupiter and Saturn. But I just don’t think we’ll see interstellar.

“What I think is most interesting, though, about the Proxima Centauri planet announcement is what it means for the younger generations.  For example, my generation and older grew up asking the question, ‘Are there other planets out there?’ Now, younger generations won’t even ask that question, they will skip right on to ‘how can we get to other planets (more quickly than we are able to today)?’ I think that more focused line of question will lead to faster development of the technology to get there. But I’m wondering, do we go direct from Earth, or Mars?  Or even somewhere farther in or outside the solar system? I’m sure we’ll test faster interstellar probes first before we ever send humans, so I’m hoping I might get to see that in my lifetime.”

Kirk, Picard or Janeway?

“Kirk. No question about it. Picard is a good second.”

“Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds” will be on exhibit at Seattle’s EMP Museum through next February. Today the museum has planned a day of special activities to mark the 50th anniversary of the show’s U.S. premiere. Among the highlights are a 3:30 p.m. showing of a documentary titled “Building Star Trek”; and a 5 p.m. panel discussion titled “Trek Talk: Star Trek’s Continuing Influence on Science and Innovation,” with Brooks Peck as the moderator.