By Mike Medeiros
Welcome to the Spirit of Trek, a weekly column where we identify and celebrate Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity by discovering how its messages has started to permeate throughout humanity’s collective consciousness by looking for it on the Internet and within popular culture. This week we’re going to be examining the future of humanity’s space exploration, one of Gene Roddenberry’s visions.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stated that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” This bold statement marked the start of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, which spurred innovation for both nations. The US won the space race, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor.
It was during the space race that Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek. He used the theme of living and working in space as the setting for us to see a future where a united humanity has come together to explore the great unknown for the betterment of all people. It was a bold idea that captured the imagination of fans all over the world. With Star Trek, art imitated life and amplified it to the extremes. However, as time progressed, life started to imitate art.
The US and the Soviet Union both shifted their attention away from the moon to near Earth orbit and went in different directions with their space programs. While the US pursued the development of the space shuttle, a reusable orbital spacecraft capable of ferrying people and equipment such as satellites, science labs, and space telescopes into orbit; the Soviet Union launched Mir (a space station where they studied the effects of living in space for prolonged periods of time), and focused on their ability to send people there.
As other nations (such as China, the European Union, India, Japan, and others) developed space programs of their own, opportunities for international cooperation began to take shape. The US continued their leadership position by spearheading or providing support for many of these projects, including the construction of the International Space Station. After its completion, the US retired their fleet of shuttles. Many people wondered what would happen to the US’s leadership position, since NASA no longer had a vehicle capable of sending people into space. The US turned to the Russians and other space agencies to send crew and supplies to the International Space Station, until their Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle could be developed to take astronauts to the asteroid and Mars. In the meantime, the US took the bold step to privatize space.
It was cooperative endeavors like the construction of the International Space Station that makes me believe that Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity is a possibility. When nations come together and work to achieve something that is deemed to be impossible to accomplish on their own, it fits perfectly within the Spirit of Trek. Even the privatization of space is included within the Roddenberry vision for space exploration as we’ve seen cargo vessels, traders, and civilian scientists all over the known galaxy striving to achieve their own goals. This can only occur if space is opened up to all people; and the privatization of space creates that opportunity for all of us.
In order to spur private sector involvement in the privatization of space, NASA made contracts available to private industry to handle the delivery of supplies to the International Space Station. SpaceX was the company that won the contract and is currently delivering regular shipments of supplies to the station. Neil Degrasse Tyson talks about SpaceX’s historic voyage, as it heralded a new era for the privatization of space. The company is currently developing a craft that will be take people to the International Space Station.
Offering contracts aren’t the only means at their disposal to encourage innovation in the fledgling space industry. NASA and DARPA have each offered competitions and challenges with cash prizes. NASA offered several Centennial Challenges. These compeititons included: the Strong Tether, Power Beam, Moon Regolith Oxygen, Astronaut Glove, Vertical and Lunar Lander Challenges among many others. While DARPA’s Grand, Urban, and Robotics challenges have all made great advancements in the development of new and innovative technologies, some of these challenges came about after the success of the X Prize.
The X Prize Foundation established a prize to stimulate the development of new technologies that could capture the public’s imagination and change their perception of space and deep ocean exploration, energy and the environment, education and global developments, and life sciences. The first X Prize, backed by entrepreneurs Anousheh and Amir Ansari, was geared to create a private reusable space craft. Burt Rutan won the competition with his experimental space plane Spaceship One. Richard Branson leased the design and is pioneering private orbital flight by bringing it to the masses with his company Virgin Galactic. The success of the first X Prize has allowed other similar competitions to follow in its footsteps, including the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize, Archon Genomics X Prize, the Google Lunar X Prize, the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, and the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X Challenge to name a few.
The X Prize, however, isn’t the only competition trying to spur innovation and excitement for the space industry. Robert Bigelow established the America’s Space Prize to develop a reusable manned capsule capable of transporting five people to a Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable space hotel. The SpaceForward Foundation has several challenges that seek to develop the technologies required in the establishment of a space elevator to get people and cargo into orbit.
Let’s not forget forward thinking organizations that are taking a longer term stance to help bring Roddenberry’s future for space exploration a reality. Projects like Build the Enterprise Initiative is trying to construct a working replica of the original Starship Enterprise using currently available technology as a platform for exploring the solar system. In its first generation, they plan to use a rotating saucer to create artificial gravity and a trio of ion propulsion engines that would enable the craft to eventually reach Mars in 90 days. They believe that they could have it built and ready to go in about 20 years. Then, there’s the 100 year Starship project that seeks to build a starship capable of making the journey to a neighboring star and return within the next 100 years. Just as Kennedy set the US on the goal of reaching the moon by the end of the decade, both of these projects have set goals with adequate time frames that can represent giant leaps towards the Roddenberry vision of space exploration.
However, there are many companies that are advancing the space industry indirectly and in very different ways. Take for instance Celestis, a company that offers various types of space burial services, including low orbit and reentry, moon burial, and even sending out cremated remains out into the fartheset reaches of space. Gene Roddenberry, Majel Barrett, and James Doohan have all had some of their remains sent into orbit or beyond.
Even with the privatization of space well underway, NASA and other space agencies are moving the frontier of space exploration forward. More immediately, they have started to send Rovers and satellites to Mars in preparation for a manned trek to Mars. NASA’s next Mars mission will launch InSight to study the red planet’s geology. However, some of these efforts are also international in scale, such as the ExoMars project led by the European Space Agency with assistance from Russia that will send an orbiter satellite and a new rover to explore Mars.
Very recently, it has been revealed that NASA’s Engineering Directorate for the Advance Propulsion Theme, is currently seeking to prove the existence of Warp bubbles with their White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer by using it to expand and contract the fabric of space-time in order to move a microscopic particle ten times the speed of light. If they are successful, this will be the first step in developing a working warp drive capable of faster than light travel.
Space exploration may not have been Gene Roddenberry’s idea, but he did include it as part of his vision for the future of humanity. As a result, his vision has inspired entire generations into pursuing careers and technologies that will enable people to reach for the stars. It has given humanity something to focus on, to strive for, and to accomplish. It has showed us that by working together we can achieve the impossible. It is unclear if many of the projects and technologies that we discussed here are directly inspired by Star Trek, but I can see many parallels. In the coming decades and centuries, space exploration will continue to move forward and that embodies the spirit of trek.
Well, it’s about that time once again to wrap up this week’s column. Thank you for joining me on this journey to discover how the Spirit of Trek has started to permeate throughout our culture with the hope that one day, Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity’s future will become a reality. If you come across something that you believe embodies the Spirit of Trek on the Internet or within popular culture, please do not hesitate to share it with me. I may discuss it in a future article. Live long and Prosper.
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