Few would argue that Star Trek is just a TV show or movie franchise. The far-reaching effects of our favorite science fiction universe have been felt within the very fabric of society. It has touched the minds of young and old and inspired pioneers in all fields of human endeavor.
October 10th – 16th marks Earth Science Week, an international event organized by the American Geosciences Institute which helps the public gain an appreciation for Earth sciences and encourages responsible stewardship of the planet. It builds understand of fields such as climate change, impact from agriculture and industry, and highlights our responsibility in maintaining the delicate balances of Earth’s natural systems. To coincide with this event, let’s examine the impact of science fiction on science and technology fact.
The most direct influence Star Trek has had would likely be upon the field of astronomy and space exploration. In the 1970s this was felt when NASA received thousands of write-in requests by Star Trek fans to have the prototype space shuttle be christened Enterprise. The campaign eventually succeeded and many of the main cast of The Original Series were even on hand for the unveiling. Many astronauts have credited Star Trek with kindling a desire within them to explore the stars. This week William Shatner, Captain James T. Kirk himself, flew aboard Blue Origen’s rocket and became the eldest man to travel to space.
Computers, robotics, and artificial intelligence have also benefited from the universe of Trek. From the interactive computer aboard Starfleet vessels to Lieutenant Commander Data – a cybernetic lifeform, we have witnessed advanced intelligences that blur the lines of what life is and how it’s defined. Questions about artificial sentience are already being asked in the real world now as well. No one can deny the similarities between the Enterprise computer and the likes of Siri, Alexa, and Cortana.
Many individual episodes feature plotlines that deal with real-world environmental issues. It might be something as varied as planet-wide weather control equipment on Risa going on the fritz or a meteor set to impact a planet and the need to disrupt its path. Even Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was a commentary on the effects of mismanagement of Earth’s species and resources. Science fiction has provided a medium to explore some of these “what ifs” even before they’ve happened to shed light on our response as a species.