U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission home page

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This rendition, by artist Les Bossinas, depicts a cockpit view of a hypothetical spacecraft traveling at eight-tenths the speed of light and shows the visual distortions that would be experienced at such high speeds. The star field is actually being wrapped toward the front of the craft in addition to being significantly blue-shifted.

Shuttle Endeavour

The Shuttle Orbiter Enterprise was named after the fictional Starship Enterprise from the popular 1960's television series, Star Trek. It was used for the Shuttle's approach and landing tests in 1976.

This rendition, by artist Les Bossinas, depicts a hypothetical spacecraft with a negative energy induction ring, inspired by recent theories describing how space could be warped with negative energy to produce hyperfast transport to reach distant star systems.

Star Trek as a Cultural Phenomenon


Star Trek ranks as one of the most culturally influential television shows of all time and clearly the most influential science fiction TV show of all time. The original series, which aired on the NBC network from 1966 to 1969, has spawned four successor shows starting in the 1980s and ten movies. Countless toys, books, and other products have been marketed by Paramount, the company that owns the Star Trek "franchise." But the show's cultural influence goes far beyond its ability to replicate itself and make money for its owners.


Measuring the cultural and social impact of a TV show or event is never easy. But there are numerous indications that Star Trek has had an influence on many peoples' lives. This can be seen in a variety of ways, from the inclusion in mass-market dictionaries of words and phrases originally invented for the show, to the testimonials of people who claim that their career and life choices were influenced by Star Trek.


Although today critics often ridicule the original Star Trek for its plywood and styrofoam sets and campy acting, they often fail to recognize that the show was groundbreaking television at the time. There had been other successful science fiction television shows by the time of the first episode on September 8, 1966, most notably The Twilight Zone. But Star Trek was the first television series aimed at adults to tell sophisticated morality tales and to depict a paramilitary crew on a peaceful mission to explore the galaxy. The show's special effects were superior to anything else then depicted on TV, its stories were often written by highly regarded science fiction authors, and many of its production values, particularly costuming, were extremely high, despite the relatively limited budget of a weekly TV series. Critics who call the show cheesy ignore the fact that by the standards of the day, Star Trek was quite advanced, and it effectively raised the bar, meaning that the science fiction television shows and movies that followed it had to meet its standards of quality and maturity in order to be taken seriously.


Star Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry, a former bomber pilot, airline pilot, policeman, and television writer. The format of the show and its original pilot episode borrowed heavily from the classic 1955 movie Forbidden Planet. The central trio of Captain James Tiberius Kirk, Science Officer Mr. Spock, and Doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy was modeled on classical mythological storytelling. Roddenberry envisioned a multi-ethnic crew, including an African-American woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and most notably, an alien, the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock. In the second season Roddenberry added a Russian crewmember at a time when the United States was engaged in a tense cold war with the Soviet Union. Blacks and women were also shown as scientists and doctors on the ship.


Roddenberry sold the show to the network as classic adventure drama, calling it "Wagon Train to the Stars" and "Horatio Hornblower in Space." But in reality he wanted to tell more sophisticated stories, using futuristic situations as analogies for current problems on Earth. The show's writers often addressed moral and social issues in the episodes, tackling such subjects as slavery, warfare and discrimination. The opening line "to boldly go where no man has gone before" was taken virtually word for word from a White House booklet on space released after the 1957 Sputnik flight.


Star Trek featured the first multi-racial kiss on television, when Captain Kirk kissed his communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura. The multi-ethnic nature of the bridge crew as well as its positive message that humanity would survive and thrive among the stars is often credited by writers, fans, and historians for the show's broad appeal. As many fans later explained, Star Trek presented a positive image of the future at a time when the news was filled with stories of racism, social strife, and war. When many people wondered if the world would emerge intact from the Cold War, Star Trek depicted many different races working peacefully together several hundred years into the future. At its most basic level, Star Trek had a simple humanistic message: humanity will be okay.


Star Trek never had a large audience, as measured by television ratings. After its second season, the network decided to cancel the show. But a letter-writing campaign by fans, unprecedented in the business of television, caused network executives to reverse their decision and renew Star Trek for a third season. Unfortunately, during its third season the network put the show on at a time when few people watch television, and Star Trek was finally canceled after its third season.


But after its cancellation, Star Trek took on a life of its own. In the early 1970s, a group of fans decided to hold a convention where the original actors would speak. Expecting only a few hundred fans to attend, they were surprised when thousands showed up. Star Trek proved highly popular in television repeats, shown endlessly on local television stations around the country. Star Trek conventions, or "cons" soon became popular and fans coined the term "Trekkies" to describe themselves. These fans produced their own magazines (dubbed "fanzines") featuring fictional stories and other grassroots productions such as artwork, songs and plays. Fans even took advantage of fledgling technology such as videotape machines and video recorders to produce their own versions of Star Trek stories. An entire folk subculture grew up around the show. Star Trek apparently became more popular and reached a much broader audience after its cancellation than it had when it was originally shown on NBC.


In 1976, following a fan-organized letter-writing campaign, NASA named its first Space Shuttle Orbiter Enterprise, after the starship in the show. The Enterprise was used in a number of flight tests, but NASA canceled plans to launch it into space because it was too heavy. Enterprise was occasionally used for engineering tests, but has spent much of its lifetime in storage. It will be displayed at the Smithsonian Institution's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Annex near Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C., when that part of the museum opens. NASA also employed actress Nichelle Nichols, who played communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, to try to recruit African-Americans and women to become astronauts. During her work on the show in the 1960s, Nichols had become frustrated at her relative lack of lines and was considering quitting. She was talked out of this decision by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who told her that a show that depicted a black woman working alongside whites in a position of importance helped further the goal of racial equality.


In the late 1970s, encouraged by the demonstrated fan base for the show, Roddenberry sought to start a second TV series. But he soon abandoned this plan in favor of a movie, which was named Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The movie did sufficiently well at the box office, grossing more than $80 million, to spawn several more movies during the 1980s. In 1986, Roddenberry created a second TV show, Star Trek: The Next Generation. This show, unlike the first series, was syndicated, meaning that it was sold to individual local television stations rather than a nationwide network. It became the number one syndicated TV show and soon spawned two sequels as well as a vast marketing business of toys, books, music, and other products. Unlike the original series, which often reflected a bold, interventionist American philosophy, the new series had a less aggressive and more socially liberal message.


Many people in scientific and engineering fields have stated that they were inspired by Star Trek, which they thought portrayed science and engineering in a positive light (although rarely accurately). Even physicist Stephen Hawking was a fan of the show. Although the original Star Trek series was occasionally sexist (women wore skimpy outfits and no woman was ever shown commanding a starship), many women have testified that they were positively influenced by the show's depiction of women scientists working alongside their male counterparts. Actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg has said that seeing a black woman sitting on the bridge of a starship, and not working as a maid, made her believe as a young girl that she could be an actress with a real role. Mae Jamison, the first African-American woman to fly in space, has also said that she was deeply influenced by the show. Goldberg later played a regular on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Jamison made a cameo appearance on the show. Star Trek's influence on numerous people was chronicled in a light-hearted documentary, Trekkies.


Popular phrases from the original series such as "Beam me up, Scotty," have entered broad popular use, usually in some kind of comedic or ironic context. However, occasionally journalists and fans have oversold the show, claiming that it has inspired such devices as cell phones and even naval architecture. But Star Trek has clearly influenced many diverse aspects of human behavior.


- Dwayne Day


Sources and further reading:


Gerrold, David. The World of Star Trek. Revised edition. Written in association with Starlog Magazine. New York: Bluejay Books, 1984.

Jamison, Mae. Find Where the Wind Goes. New York: Scholastic Trade. 2001.

Lundeen, Jan and Wagner, Jon G. Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos. Praeger, 1998.

Marinaccio, Dave. All I Really Need To Know I Learned From Star Trek. New York: Crown, 1994.

Nichols, Nichelle. Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. New York: Putnam, 1994.

Porter, Jennifer E., and McLaren, Darcee L., eds. Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion, and American Culture. New York: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Shatner, William, with Kreski, Chris. Get a Life! New York: Pocket Books, 1999.

Whitfield, Stephen E., and Roddenberry, Gene. The Making of Star Trek. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.


Batchelor, David Allen. "The Science of Star Trek." http://ssdoo.gsfc.nasa.gov/education/just_for_fun/startrek.html


Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political effects of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.