Star Trek: History & Effect on Space Technology

Since viewers first heard the famous tagline, "… to boldly go where no man has gone before," "Star Trek" has represented the hope of what space — “the final frontier” — can mean for humanity in a few centuries.

Over several television series and films, the franchise mostly follows the adventures of crews on the USS Enterprise. Humanity is just one of a vast number of alien species participating in a quasi-military organization called Starfleet, whose main goal is to explore the universe for scientific reasons. Starfleet has strict rules about interacting with more primitive species and protecting uncolonized planets, but from time to time the crews in the show run afoul of these rules — sometimes with tragic results.

General franchise history and overview

"Star Trek" was created in the 1960s by Gene Roddenberry, a WWII veteran who began his screenwriting career writing freelance scripts while with the Los Angeles Police Department. Famously, NBC executives did not like the first pilot. They reportedly said the show had too little action and was “too cerebral” for viewers; however, they offered the chance for a second pilot. Except for an alien called Spock (Leonard Nimoy), the cast was switched out for a different crew led by Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner).

"Star Trek" first aired in 1966. The series followed the adventures of the USS Enterprise on a five-year mission to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” The show was cancelled in 1968 due to ratings concerns, but did well enough in syndication to justify several Hollywood films.

The original series (often referred to as "TOS") spawned six motion pictures between 1979 and 1991 (plus a partial appearance by some members of the original crew in a 1994 "Star Trek" film). Along with an animated series (1973-74), this helped keep the series alive in the minds of fans. 

Syndication success eventually led to the creation of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1987-1994), which was set many years after the original series, with a new USS Enterprise helmed by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). This generation of "Star Trek" tackled issues such as racism, gender and torture, and remains one of the most popularly cited series to this day. "TNG" eventually moved into theaters, with four films between 1994 and 2002. 

Roddenberry died in 1991. While "TNG" was still on the air, a different series, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" (1993-1999), premiered. The show followed the exploits of a crew on a space station, rather than the traditional starship.

"Star Trek" also saw two more commercial TV series. "Star Trek: Voyager" (1995-2001) followed the exploits of a crew that was stranded in space, led by the series' first main female captain, Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). Finally, "Enterprise" (2001-2005) took to the air as a prequel to the events of The Original Series, where Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) helmed the first warp-drive capable Enterprise. 

"Enterprise" was cancelled in 2005, but four years later The Original Series came back to Hollywood with a reboot of the original characters of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy — plus the rest of the main crew. The 2009 film was a hit and has so far spawned three other films – "Star Trek: Into Darkness" (2013), "Star Trek Beyond" (2016) and an untitled film in the works for 2019.

Meanwhile, Star Trek is expected to return to television – at least through CBS streaming – in 2017, when an untitled series makes its debut.

Franchise impact on real-life space exploration

Perhaps the most famous example of Star Trek inspiring real-life took place in the 1970s. The United States was preparing to run test flights of the space shuttle program using a prototype vehicle called Constitution. In response, thousands of "Star Trek" fans staged a write-in campaign to the White House and NASA asking for the prototype shuttle to be named Enterprise. When Enterprise was indeed unveiled in 1976, most of the main cast of TOS was on hand. Enterprise was not designed to fly in space, however.

Decades later, space tourism company Virgin Galactic named one of its planned spacecraft VSS Enterprise, after the television show. The spacecraft, built in 2004, did several in-atmosphere tests in preparation for eventually bringing it and other prototypes into space. VSS Enterprise, however, was destroyed in 2014 during a crash that killed one pilot and severely injured another. The National Transport Safety Board later determined a unique “feathering” system — intended to slow down the spacecraft as it was in the upper atmosphere — deployed early and was the leading cause of the crash.

A few astronauts have appeared on "Star Trek" over the years, according to fan site Memory Alpha. Mae Jamieson is the first one the site records as appearing on a show; she was on the 1993 sixth season episode of TNG's “Second Chances,” where she was visited by TOS' Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). While in space during STS-47, Jamieson reportedly began shifts with Mission Control by quoting Uhura's famous line: “Hailing frequencies are open.” The next recorded astronauts were Mike Fincke and Terry Virts, who appeared on the series finale of "Enterprise" in 2005.

While no "Star Trek" regular actor has flown in space (yet), several of them have recorded supportive messages for NASA, such as Nichols and Wil Wheaton. Nichols not only did a video message, but also flew on NASA's SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) aircraft in 2015.

"Star Trek" actors have also bantered with real astronauts on Twitter, most notably early in Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's International Space Station mission in 2012-13 when he spoke with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Wil Wheaton and George Takei. (Shatner asked: “Are you tweeting from space?” to which Hadfield replied, “Yes, Standard Orbit, Captain. And we're detecting signs of life from the surface.") After Nimoy died in February 2015, NASA sent out a tweet honoring the actor: "RIP Leonard Nimoy. So many of us at NASA were inspired by Star Trek. Boldly go…"

Star Trek tech

Several early "Star Trek" technologies have also made their way into our everyday lives. "Communicators" are now cell phones, which connect to each other via satellite. Tricorders, which were used to gather medical information, are now available as MRIs — some of which are being developed for space. Enterprise crewmembers can also be seen using tablet computers, and global positioning satellites, which can zero in on your position on the planet, are similar to how teleportation devices worked on the show.

However, human teleportation still eludes us, as does faster-than-light warp drive. In 2015, NASA downplayed several media reports that a “faster-than-light” EM Drive they were developing was on the verge of a breakthrough. “NASA is not working on 'warp drive' technology,” officials said, adding that the EM Drive was “a small effort that has not yet shown any tangible results.” Teleportation, meanwhile, has only been achieved on the quantum scale across a few miles.

List of film and TV appearances

Numerous fan-made productions and series spinoffs (such as books and comic books) have been produced; however, this list represents the "official" films and television series that have been released. There are plans to release a fourth in the “rebooted” series of "Star Trek" films in 2019, and to start a new television series via streaming in 2017.

Television series

  • Star Trek (The Original Series - 1966–1969)
  • Star Trek (The Animated Series - 1973–1974)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–1999)
  • Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001)
  • Enterprise (2001–2005)
  • Untitled Star Trek series (2017–)

  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
  • Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
  • Star Trek: The Search for Spock (1984)
  • Star Trek: The Voyage Home (1986)
  • Star Trek: The Final Frontier (1989)
  • Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
  • Star Trek: Generations (1994)
  • Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
  • Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
  • Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
  • Star Trek (2009)
  • Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)
  • Star Trek Beyond (2016)
  • Untitled Star Trek film (2019)


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