WASHINGTON — Academics, professionals and Star Trek fans are once again discussing the iconic franchise's influence on society, science, and technology, as the dazzling new sci-fi adventure Star Trek Into Darkness plays in theaters.
The starship Enterprise is well-known to viewers of the iconic Star Trek TV series and visitors to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, where the original model is on display in the gift shop. The fictional craft - whose long-running mission has been to explore the farthest reaches of "space, the final frontier" - even inspired the name of NASA's prototype space shuttle, said museum curator Margaret Weitekamp.
"Well, the very first space shuttle was actually named Enterprise as a result of a write-in campaign orchestrated by Star Trek fans of the 1970s," she explained.
Star Trek and Society
Weitekamp, who recently took part in a panel discussion at the museum about Star Trek's relevance, noted the television series began airing in the 1960s as women and minorities pressed for equal rights.
"Star Trek has been a really important vision not only of what future spaceflight could look like, but also a reflection of what the hopes were, especially in the 1960s, for what human society could look like," she said. "So, very importantly in 1966, it is a mixed-sex, racially integrated, multinational space crew that even includes an alien going out and really working together as equals."
Star Trek Tech
Nancy Reagin, a professor at Pace University in New York and editor of the book "Star Trek and History", noted the show's creator, Gene Roddenberry, was a futurist. She says some of Roddenberry's friends worked in technology development, and the original series showed technologies that have become reality.
"You see the first depiction of a plasma-screen TV. You see the first depiction of what I would call a cell phone. I mean the communicators - they sort of flip open just like the first cell phone that I ever had," she explained. "You see the first example of Bluetooth technology, where Uhura is wearing the little Bluetooth in her ear. You see the first use of tablets, you know, where they are using multi-touch pads."
Star Trek still inspires engineers, said Mike Gold, corporate counsel at Bigelow Aerospace. The Nevada-based company is developing next-generation spacecraft.
"I'd like to think that our entire program is again very much in keeping with the spirit of Star Trek, which is to push the boundaries for human exploration," he said.
The Bigelow Expander Activity Module will be tested on the International Space Station in 2015. Gold notes its acronym, BEAM, harkens back to Star Trek characters' abilities to teleport or "beam" from one location to another.
Star Trek fans gathered at the Air and Space Museum in Washington and the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City for a Google Hangout with the stars and writer of the newest movie, Star Trek Into Darkness. Two astronauts at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and one on the International Space Station joined in to discuss Star Trek's appeal.
Astronaut Kjell Lindgren in Houston said it fires up the imagination.
"That's one of the real fun things about these movies and just science fiction in general: that opportunity to imagine what the future could be like and what technology is going to be like," he said.
Lindgren, a physician, said he would love to see a wand that could diagnose illnesses, similar to the medical tricorder seen on Star Trek.
Fellow astronaut Michael Fincke said researchers are testing a device called Microflow, which is designed to quickly assess astronauts' health. Microflow is on the International Space Station now.
"It uses these really tiny, little disposable cartridges and chips, and that same technology finds its way into the hospital room just a few years after we experiment with it," Fincke said.
Astronaut Fincke, speaking from Johnson Space Center, added that Star Trek motivates him during tedious office meetings on Earth.
"Then you think about some of the recent Star Trek episodes you've watched and you start to say, 'Yeah, that's inspirational. That's why I'm here at NASA,'" he told fans.
Star Trek has been a part of popular culture for nearly 50 years and with yet another movie in the planning stages, it will continue to inspire people to think about space, the final frontier.