The Star Trek universe of television shows, movies, games, and books has captivated generations with its stories illustrating how people can bring out the best in their selves through the challenge of space exploration. Gene Roddenberry believed that humanity (and like-minded species) would one day unite behind a common cause and purpose – equality of opportunity and liberty for all under the rule of law, unbounded by poverty, starvation, or physical need. This was the core of his United Federation of Planets.
The latest movie in the “reimagined” series, Star Trek Into Darkness, was released this week to much acclaim. Though the J.J. Abrams’ Federation is in some ways less a utopia than in Roddenberry’s original vision, it still serves as an important vessel for commentary on our times and the good that is possible when we rise to the challenges set before us. The engine room scenes were actually filmed in one of our sister institutions – the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – because Abrams was moved by the scientists and engineers working to change the world by making fusion energy possible. Many of those same researchers were inspired to science careers because they watched Star Trek while growing up!
The International Space Station itself provides a key step towards building the future that Roddenberry envisioned. It is humanity’s outpost in space where we – as a multinational team of equals – are learning how to keep people safe, happy, and healthy for extended durations away from Earth, developing new exploration technologies, answering basic questions about the nature of the universe, and creating opportunities for private industry to bring the resources of the Solar System into our economic system.
While the USS Enterprise’s warp drive and fusion reactors are many years away, if even possible, the ISS is where we have first learned to build large structures in space. That knowledge will certainly be applied to the first vehicles that travel between the planets without ever touching down on a surface – the true progenitors of the Enterprise herself. The Enterprise’s “impulse thrusters” are fusion rockets that the University of Washington is trying to develop through a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts grant. We may yet see the first of these assembled at and tested from the ISS.
Star Trek also envisions a future where people live and work in space for their entire lives and space-based resources eliminate the need for ecologically-damaging industrial processes. The ISS National Laboratory will bring us closer to such a way of life by serving as a platform for commercial technology development and industrial microgravity research, such as the the ISS National Lab-sponsored protein crystal growth projects flying to the Station later this year and development grants for new radiation-tolerant computer systems and advanced solar panels.
Space truly is “the final frontier” and its exploration portends the future of our civilization. The International Space Station serves as our foothold towards that future.