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55 Years Ago: Star Trek Debuts, Begins an Enduring Relationship with NASA

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!”

Those now-familiar words were first heard coming from television sets on Sept. 8, 1966, at the opening of the premiere episode of the science fiction series Star Trek. Although the original series only lasted three seasons, its dedicated fan base eventually turned the show into a global cultural phenomenon. Over the years, with the franchise’s primary theme of space exploration, and additional inspirational themes of diversity and inclusion, a natural association formed between the Star Trek fictional universe and NASA’s real life activities.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry first had the idea for a science fiction television series in 1964. The show was set in the 23rd century aboard a starship whose crew was dedicated to exploring the galaxy. Roddenberry presented his idea to Desilu Productions, an independent television production company headed by I Love Lucy star Lucille Ball. The National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) bought the show’s two pilot episodes and introduced the show to its fall 1966 lineup. The first episode, “The Man Trap,” aired on Sept. 8. To put that date in perspective, NASA was preparing to launch the Gemini 11 mission and the Apollo 11 Moon landing was more than three years in the future. Meanwhile, every week on television screens across the country, the Starship Enterprise was making fictional journeys through the galaxy. The makeup of the Enterprise’s crew attracted late 1960s television audiences. The major characters included an African-American woman communications officer, an Asian-American helmsman, and a half-human half-Vulcan science officer. They were later joined by a Russian ensign, almost unimaginable during the height of the Cold War. While the show enjoyed good ratings during its first two seasons, cuts to its production budget resulted in lower quality episodes during its third season leading to lower ratings and eventual cancellation, despite a concerted letter-writing campaign by its dedicated fans. The show’s last episode aired on June 3, 1969, six weeks before the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

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Left: A scene from The Man Trap, the premiere episode of Star Trek. Right: The cast of the original Star Trek series from a promotional ad for the 1968-1969 season.
Credits: Images courtesy of NBC.

Despite the show’s cancellation, Star Trek reruns lived on and prospered in syndication, becoming a world-wide sensation and attracting an ever-growing fan base. Often dubbed “trekkies,” these fans held the first of many Star Trek conventions in 1972. Their continuing support and dedication led to the brand renewing itself in 1979 as a full-length motion picture with the original TV series cast members reprising their roles. Over the years, several sequels followed this first film. And on the small screen, a reboot of sorts occurred in 1987 with the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation, set in the 24th century aboard the Enterprise-D, a next generation starship with a new crew. That series lasted seven seasons, followed by a near-bewildering array of spin-off series and full-length motion pictures built on the Star Trek brand that continue to this day.

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Left: The creator and cast members of Star Trek attend the September 1976 rollout of space shuttle Enterprise with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher, left. Right: Several of the cast members giving the Vulcan greeting in front of space shuttle Enterprise.

When in 1976 NASA announced that it would name its first space shuttle orbiter Constitution in recognition of its planned public rollout on September 17, the anniversary of the ratification of the United States Constitution, trekkies engaged in a dedicated letter writing campaign to have the orbiter named Enterprise instead, after the starship in the television series. This time the fans’ letter writing campaign proved successful. President Gerald R. Ford agreed with the trekkies and directed NASA to make it so. When the vehicle rolled out of the Rockwell International manufacturing plant in Palmdale, California, 10 years and nine days after the show’s premiere, it bore the name Enterprise. Star Trek’s creator Rodenberry and many of the show’s cast members attended the ceremony, hosted by NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher. Thus began a long relationship between the space agency and the Star Trek brand.

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Left: Nichelle Nichols, left, and NASA astronaut Alan L. Bean in the space shuttle simulator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in March 1977. Right: Nichols, left, in JSC’s Mission Control Center during the filming of the recruiting video.

During the development of the space shuttle in the 1970s, NASA needed to recruit a new group of astronauts to fly the vehicle, deploy the satellites, and perform the science experiments. To encourage women and minorities to apply to be astronauts, NASA hired actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura as the communications officer on the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, to embark on a four-month recruiting campaign across the country. In March 1977, she came to NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, accompanied by Apollo 12 and Skylab 3 astronaut Alan L. Bean. She toured the center and filmed scenes for a recruiting video in Mission Control and other facilities. Nichols’ campaign, leveraging on her stature and popularity, inspired hundreds of women and minorities to apply. In January 1978, NASA announced the selection of 35 new astronauts, for the first time including women and minorities. All distinguished themselves as NASA astronauts and paved the way for others in subsequent astronaut selections. The 2020 documentary film “Woman in Motion” chronicles Nichols’ career, highlighting her contributions to the NASA astronaut selection process.

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Left: Nichelle Nichols, middle, with NASA astronaut B. Alvin Drew in the space station trainer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in 2010. Right: In 2015, Nichols, middle, inside the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy aircraft at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California.

Nichols returned to JSC in September 2010 with the Traveling Space Museum, an organization that partners with schools to promote space studies. She toured Mission Control and the International Space Station trainer, accompanied by astronaut B. Alvin Drew. In September 2015, at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, she flew aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) airborne telescope aircraft.

star trek first episode 9 doohan and bruce peterson at dryden april 13 1967 star trek first episode 10 doohan and runco in shuttle fft january 18 199 star trek first episode 11 armstrong at doohan farewell ann ecusack la times 2004
Left: James Doohan visiting the Dryden Flight Research Center, now NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, in 1967 with NASA pilot Bruce A. Peterson, in front of the M2-F2 lifting body aircraft. Middle: In 1991, Doohan in the commander’s seat of the space shuttle simulator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, assisted by NASA astronaut Mario Runco. Right: Doohan, second from left, with fellow Star Trek stars George Takei, left, and Nichelle Nichols, and Apollo 11 astronaut Neil A. Armstrong.
Credit: Image courtesy Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times.

James Doohan, the actor who played Lt. Cmdr. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, the Starship Enterprise’s chief engineer, had early associations with NASA. In April 1967, Doohan visited the Dryden Flight Research Center, now NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, spending time with NASA pilot Bruce A. Peterson, a test pilot for the experimental M2-F2 lifting body aircraft who a month later barely survived a horrific crash of the vehicle. Doohan narrated a documentary film about the space shuttle released shortly before Columbia made its first flight in April 1981. In January 1991, Doohan visited JSC and, accompanied by astronaut Mario Runco (who sometimes goes by the nickname “Spock”), toured the space shuttle trainers, Mission Control, and the Manipulator Development Facility where he tried his hand at operating the shuttle robot arm. In a unique tribute, astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, the first person to step on the lunar surface, made a rare public appearance to speak at Doohan’s retirement in 2004, as “one old engineer to another.”

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Left: In 2012, Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston Michael L. Coats presenting George Takei with a plaque. Right: Takei and Robonaut both giving the Vulcan greeting.

George Takei, who played Enterprise helmsman Lt. Hikaru Sulu, and his husband Brad visited JSC in May 2012. Invited by both the Asian-American and Pacific Islander and the LGBTQ Employee Resource Groups, Takei spoke of leadership and inclusiveness, including overcoming challenges while in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II and as a member of the LGBTQ community. He noted that Star Trek was ahead of its time in creating a future when all members of society could participate equally in great undertakings, at a time when the country was struggling through the Civil Rights movement and the conflict in Southeast Asia. Takei was greatly inspired by the inclusiveness that is part of NASA’s culture. JSC Director Michael L. Coats presented Takei with a plaque including a U.S. flag flown aboard STS-135, the final space shuttle mission. Takei also visited Mission Control and spent some time with the Robonaut team.

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Left: Star Trek cast member Leonard Nimoy giving the Vulcan greeting in front of space shuttle Enterprise after its arrival in New York in 2012. Right: In 2015, in the space station’s Cupola module, Expedition 43 crew member Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency giving the Vulcan salute to honor the late actor Nimoy. 

Actor Leonard Nimoy played the half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock, the science officer aboard the Starship Enterprise. He was on hand in September 2012 when space shuttle Enterprise arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, on the last leg of its journey to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, where it is currently on display. “This is a reunion for me,” said Nimoy. “Thirty-five years ago, I met the Enterprise for the first time,” referring to the rollout ceremony in 1976. Following Nimoy’s death in 2015, European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti paid tribute to him aboard the space station by wearing a Star Trek science officer uniform, giving the Vulcan greeting, and saying, “Of all the souls I have encountered … his was the most human.”

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Left: In 2014, Star Trek cast member William Shatner, left, receiving the Distinguished Public Service Medal from NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications Robert N. “Bob” Jacobs. Right: Shatner, upper left, moderates a virtual panel at the 2020 San Diego ComicCon with NASA spacesuit engineer Lindsay T. Aitchison, upper right, NASA astronauts Nicole A. Mann, lower left, and Kjell N. Lindgren, and NASA technology expert LaNetra C. Tate.

At the helm of the Starship Enterprise was Captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner, a life-long advocate of science and space exploration who has given his talent in support of NASA activities. In 2011, Shatner hosted and narrated a NASA documentary celebrating the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle program, and gave his time and voice to other NASA documentaries. The agency recognized Shatner’s contributions in 2014 with a NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award bestowed on non-government individuals. The citation for the medal, presented to Shatner by NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications Robert N. “Bob” Jacobs, read, “For outstanding generosity and dedication to inspiring new generations of explorers around the world, and for unwavering support for NASA and its missions of discovery.” In 2019, Shatner narrated the NASA video We Are Going, about NASA’s plans to land the next man and the first woman on the Moon. He has spoken at numerous NASA-themed events and moderated panels about NASA’s future plans.

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Left: The patch for the space station’s Window Observational Research Facility (WORF), including the Klingon writing just below the letters “WORF.” Right: The STS-54 crew of space shuttle Endeavour wearing Star Trek officers’ uniforms.

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Left: The Space Flight Awareness (SFA) poster for the Expedition 21 crew. Right: The SFA poster for the STS-134 crew of space shuttle Endeavour.

Elements of the Star Trek universe have made their way not only into popular culture but also into NASA culture. As noted above, Star Trek fans were instrumental in naming the first space shuttle Enterprise. When NASA was designing an Earth observation facility for the space station to make use of its optical quality window, its formal acronym became the Window Observational Research Facility (WORF). The connection between that acronym and the name of a Klingon officer aboard the Enterprise in the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series was an opportunity not to be missed. On the facility’s official patch, underneath the acronym “WORF” is the name written in the fictional Klingon language. Several astronaut crews have embraced Star Trek themes for their unofficial photographs. The STS-54 crew of space shuttle Endeavour dressed in uniforms of Starship Enterprise officers from Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Kahn, the second full-length feature motion picture of the franchise. Space shuttle and space station crews create Space Flight Awareness posters for their missions, and several have embraced Star Trek motifs. The Expedition 21 crew dressed in uniforms from the original series, while the STS-134 crew of space shuttle Endeavour chose as their inspiration the 2009 reboot motion picture Star Trek.

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Left: Picture of the Gemini 6 launch in the background in the 1967 Star Trek episode “Court Martial.” Credit: Image courtesy of Middle: NASA astronaut Mae C. Jemison, left, and actor LeVar Burton in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Credit: Image courtesy CBS. Right: NASA astronauts Terry W. Virts, left, and E. Michael Fincke, right, flank actor Scott Bakula on the set of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005. Credit: Image courtesy CBS.

As much as Star Trek has influenced NASA, in turn the agency has left its mark on the franchise, from episodes referencing actual and future spaceflight events to appearances by NASA astronauts as characters on the show. The first-season episode “Court Martial” that aired in February 1967 featured a photograph of the December 1965 Gemini 6 launch hanging on a wall aboard a star base. In the second-season episode “Return to Tomorrow,” airing in February 1968, Captain Kirk in a dialogue about risk-taking remarks, “Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn’t reached the Moon?” a prescient reference to the first Apollo mission to reach the Moon more than 10 months after the episode aired. Astronaut Mae C. Jemison, who credits Nichelle Nichols as her inspiration to become an astronaut, appeared in the 1993 episode “Second Chances” of Star Trek: The Next Generation, eight months after her real spaceflight aboard space shuttle Endeavour. In May 2005, two other NASA astronauts, Terry W. Virts and E. Michael Fincke, appeared in “These are the Voyages…,” the final episode of the series Star Trek: Enterprise.

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Left: NASA astronaut Victor J. Glover, host of the 2016 documentary “NASA on the Edge of Forever: Science in Space.” Right: Actress Nichelle Nichols appearing in the documentary “NASA on the Edge of Forever: Science in Space.”

In the 2016 documentary “NASA on the Edge of Forever: Science in Space,” host NASA astronaut Victor J. Glover states, “Science and Star Trek go hand-in-hand.” The film explores how for the past 50 years, Star Trek has influenced scientists, engineers, and even astronauts to reach beyond their potential. While the space station doesn’t speed through the galaxy like the Starship Enterprise, much of the research conducted aboard the orbiting facility can make the fiction of Star Trek come a little closer to reality. Several of the cast members from the original TV series share their viewpoints in the documentary, along with those of NASA managers and scientists. Over the years, NASA has created several videos highlighting the relationship between the agency and the Star Trek franchise. In 2016, then-NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden led a video tribute to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Star Trek episode.

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In a tribute to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry on the 100th anniversary of his birth, his son Rod, upper left, hosts a virtual panel discussion about diversity and inspiration.

On the 100th anniversary of Gene Roddenberry’s birth, his son Rod hosted a virtual panel discussion, introduced by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, about diversity and inspiration, two ideals the Star Trek creator infused into the series. Panelists included Star Trek actor George Takei, Tracy D. Drain, flight systems engineer for the Europa Clipper spacecraft at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, NASA astronaut Jonny Kim, Swati Mohan, guidance and operations lead for the Mars 2020 rover at JPL, and Hortense B. Diggs, Director of the Office of Communication and Public Engagement at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The mutual attraction between NASA and Star Trek is that both, to paraphrase the opening voiceover from the TV series, seek to explore and discover new worlds, and to boldly go where no one has gone before. The diversity, inclusion, and inspiration involved in these endeavors ensures that they will live long and prosper.

John Uri
NASA Johnson Space Center