Jonathan Salem Baskin

Made Real

Today, an imagined future became present-tense fact.

When NASA’s first space shuttle was completed on this day in 1976, the agency had planned to name it Constitution (since it was the year of the nation’s bicentennial). But people felt otherwise, at least those folks who were fans of the sci-fi series Star Trek, which had run for a few years on broadcast television late during the decade prior. The show had never been popular; in fact, it was canceled once, and then brought back by the outcry of its small but die-hard coterie of fans. Show producer Bjo Trimble orchestrated a similar protest prior to the shuttle naming, which generated 200,000 letters to President Gerald Ford.

It’s likely that many of the scientists, workers, and contractors behind America’s space program were among the agitators. Star Trek made a life-changing impact on a generation of geeks who would readily cite the show as having inspired them to pursue not just technology careers, but to work to make the space travel they’d imagined into something real. It also inspired women and African-Americans with its diverse lead cast (actor Nichelle Nichols thought about leaving the show during its second season, but was convinced by Martin Luther King Jr. to continue her role). Once the real Enterprise was built, it never went into space (it was only a prototype shuttle), but it was deftly inserted back in the burgeoning Star Trek mythology, appearing as a model on Captain Sisko’s desk in Deep Space Nine, and in the opening credits of Star Trek: Enterprise.

I wonder if a new generation of geeks were similarly inspired by it.