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50 years of Star Trek: Boldly inspiring generations of scientists

Sharon Gaudin | Sept. 9, 2016
Scientists from CalTech, NASA, Boeing and WPI all say the 1960s Sci-Fi show fueled their passions

For Robert Hurt, some of his earliest memories are of sitting with his dad in their den watching the original Star Trek and dreaming of space travel and astronomy.

Now 50 years later, Hurt is a physicist working at the California Institute of Technology on NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, peering deep into areas of space that have always been hidden from us.

Like Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the starship USS Enterprise, Hurt is a space explorer.

After Star Trek first aired - 50 years ago today - on Sept. 8, 1966, people could envision a time when the human race would explore space and "boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before." The show, which ran for three seasons, also began to inspire those kids in PJs or hanging out with friends watching Kirk and Mr. Spock meet aliens and explore distant planets.

For many researchers today, their passion for science was fed by the original series, along with the later spin-offs and movies that followed.

Robert Hurt, a physicist working at the California Institute of Technology.

"It really fueled our interests," said Hurt, adding that there's a good chance he wouldn't be a scientist today without Star Trek's inspiration. "One of the things that was most formative for me as a child was that...with Star Trek, science isn't something we fear. The second in command of the Enterprise was the science officer. That was a really powerful symbol growing up. Science doesn't create monsters. Science is what we use to face problems and solve problems."

That original show has been followed by five more TV series, including The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. And the franchise isn't dormant. A seventh television series, Discovery, is expected to begin airing on CBS All Access in January.

There also have been 13 Star Trek films, including this year's latest movie Star Trek Beyond.

All served to create a mythology around space exploration, multi-cultural diversity and cooperation and an optimism around science.

John Smith, who does trajectory design for outer planets missions at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said Star Trek was one of the very first shows he can remember watching as a kid. It influenced his career, as well as his outlook on life.

John Smith

John Smith, who does trajectory design for outer planets missions at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"It drove me towards aerospace engineering," Smith said, noting that he's seen each of the original episodes at least a dozen times. "For that time period, there were few shows that reflected the optimism and the acceptance that was present in that show.... It was very revolutionary for the day and it was present throughout Star Trek."

 

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