What Star Trek Has Taught Us
To paraphrase a famous line from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “I have been and always shall be, a Trekkie”. It has been 50 years since I began the Trek journey, and like a lot of other people who eventually wound up studying science, space engineering, and other space exploration topics, I was smitten with the idea of going to space.
I’d been a space fan since the first NASA launches, and into astronomy since the first time I went stargazing with my dad. Young as I was, I knew that someday we’d all head to space. Star Trek cemented that idea in my head. The concept of exploring new worlds and new civilizations has never left me. I continue to watch Star Trek, read science fiction, and dream of my own future in space — if it ever comes. I’m also part of a performance troupe that does a monthly podcast called Star Trek: Outpost, where I (currently) bring a deranged Klingon pirate to life. Add to that the talks I have given (and continue to give) about astronomy and exploration at Star Fest (in Denver) each year, plus at other Cons, and it adds up to one show (and its sequels, movies, and books) having a large influence on my life.
Star Trek had some ideals that still speak to us today. Among them:
“Infinite diversity in infinite combinations” — the concept of IDIC that rules the Vulcans (and others). The idea is that life comes in many forms and combos, and that respect for all the many ways it manifests itself is necessary to be a truly galactic citizen. Of course, not every form of life that the Trek crew encountered followed that rule, but that made for interesting drama throughout all the series. We could sure use that ideal today, a lot more than we do.
Racial unity was a big factor, especially in the early Trek series, which was written against a backdrop of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The crew was a mix of all kinds of people who worked and laughed and loved together (as you might expect among humans thrown together on a small ship in infinite space). We could do with a LOT more of that today.
Trek brought us a glimpse at a technological future that we CAN attain. Starships aren’t quite as ready to go as we’d like, but they will happen. Human planetary exploration will happen sooner than we think (although it’s tough to say exactly when that will occur, given our current reductions in exploration spending (in the U.S.) and the technological challenges still to be met). Star Trek-style technology is making inroads into our culture, and perhaps we’ll see such things as fully functional tricorders in hospitals and communicator badges in the next year or two. There are prototypes already. Transporters could be on the horizon, although as my DH likes to say, we’d hope that the companies that develop them don’t use cheap JPG algorithms to compress the data.
Honor is a concept that Trek brought up a lot, particularly in later series as we got to know the Klingons better. As part of my preparation for my part on Star Trek: Outpost, I read a number of the Trek novels about the Klingons. They are incredibly more honorable than when we first met them back in Kirk’s day. They may be warriors, but they have a strong sense of honor that all of us would do well to learn and make part of our characters. I suspect they would laugh and spit at the politicians of today who trumpet their “honor” while taking bribes and harming others just so they can get into office. We should all take a closer look at Klingon honor and figure out a way to make honor part of our lives again.
The Vulcans, who discovered Earth at the cusp of its own exploration, taught us much about the beauty of logic. I immediately gravitated to Spock, who was (to my young mind) the embodiment of cool technological thought. He and the Vulcans gave us a glimpse into people who had outgrown some of their baser instincts. That’s not a bad thing to aim for.
Education, while not specifically addressed in Trek, is embedded in the ethos of the Federation. It’s all there in the opening mantra: to go where no one has gone before, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go…” Education is tightly woven into that thought. A large part of learning is immersing yourself in new situations, new places, among new people. Once you do that, you are never the same and you can’t interpret your world in the same way any longer. I often think about that when I am traveling out in the world, saying to myself, “More of my country people should see and do this…” The best characters in Trek are the best educated and most open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Even among the Klingons, the Cardassians, the Ferengi and others, there are members of those races who open themselves to change and experimentation. And, it always pays off.
Star Trek hasn’t been without its dramatic battles. We all thrill to space battle scenes, but at least in the Trek episodes and movies I admire the most, it’s how the characters deal with the aftermath of their decisions and battles that tell the true story of their age. We could learn a lot from that in figuring out how to deal with other members of humanity in decent and honorable ways.
This 50th year of Star Trek, I’ve been reading about a number of scientists, astronauts, and technological experts who first were inspired by the show and its ideals. It certainly worked for me! The show had a huge impact on all of us — it led us to work on ways to explore and widen human perceptions about the universe. I hope it continues to do so in all its forms and that future Star Trek versions will keep the ideals that made it so popular. It was and and always shall be a gift to all of us who want to see what’s out there….that-away. Let’s take care of that gift and learn from its positive ideals.