Feature | September 5, 2016

To boldly go: How 'Star Trek' inspired NASA's planet hunters

Captain Kirk sits in his chair on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

On the eve of "Star Trek's" 50th anniversary, our planet hunters reveal how the landmark show inspired them to search for other worlds. Credit: CBS/Paramount.

By Pat Brennan,
NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program

The 1960s "Star Trek" series, canceled after only three seasons for want of stronger ratings, roared back from oblivion to become one of the world’s most successful film and television franchises. As its 50th anniversary approaches, the show remains a palpable presence within NASA.

Some scientists and engineers are partial to the original series, with its 1960s hairdos, quick-drawing Captain Kirk and soaring musical score. Others prefer the “Next Generation” and its Shakespearean Captain Picard, or fondly recall other "Star Trek" spinoffs such as “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager” and “Enterprise.”

All of them say various "Star Trek" manifestations, on television or the big screen, made a lasting impression, helping fire their passion for space exploration.

Habitable Zone
Vulcan
(fictional exoplanet)
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Vulcan (fictional exoplanet)

Click and drag to change view. Click arrows to view full screen. While Mr. Spock's home planet Vulcan (orbited here by the Enterprise) is imaginary, the triple-star system where it's said to orbit--40 Eridani--is real. In the full system view, the orange and blue X's in this visualization indicate the barycenters, or the gravitational centers around which the stars orbit.

Varoujan Gorjian

Astronomer and astrophysicist at JPL who hunts for planets beyond our solar system using the Spitzer Space Telescope and other instruments.

Varoujan

"Star Trek" is one of the earliest shows I ever remember watching. My brother and I watched it. I’m an Armenian, born in Iran. When I first watched it, it was in Farsi. The Farsi name was "Pishtazane Faza." We called it “Mr. Spock,” or the “Spock show.” Both of us, I think, identified with that character. I think I identified with his scientific bent. It merged well with my scientific interest. What is the logical approach to solving problems, learning about the universe, and so on? That spoke to me greatly. I was 10 years old when I came here [to California]. The resonance was being the outsider. Spock [part human, part Vulcan] was an outsider; he was not even a pure Vulcan. This merged character was what I was—born Armenian in Iran, growing up in the United States. I was this mesh of cultures. He has these two sides to him; for me there were even more sides.


Aki Roberge

Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who studies planet formation and is helping conceptualize a possible future space telescope called LUVOIR (Large Ultraviolet / Optical / Infrared surveyor).

Aki Roberge

Growing up without a TV at home, I didn’t see "Star Trek" til I went away to college at MIT. At my coed fraternity there, we would go to the dining room, put our dinners on plates, and take them to the TV room. A whole gang of us would watch “Star Trek: the Next Generation” together every day. I took to it like a duck to water. Obviously, my captain is Captain Picard, although my favorite series is probably “Deep Space Nine.” For me, it wasn’t only a vision of the diversity of worlds and life that might be out there that drew me in. It was also "Star Trek’s" vision of how humanity itself is changed by the exploration of space and then by meeting others who are genuinely, fundamentally different from ourselves. The "Star Trek" vision is a very optimistic, sunny vision of humanity at peace with itself, and with a greater appreciation for—and a greater value placed on—personal development and satisfaction in your work.


Nick Siegler

Technology manager for NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program, based at JPL.

Nick Siegler

I dedicated my Ph.D. dissertation to several folks, and one of them was to the "Star Trek" series. I dedicated it to "Star Trek," Carl Sagan, the scientists and engineers of Voyager 1 and 2, Isaac Asimov and my father.

When I was a younger man I was fascinated by exploration. All the books I read were biographies of explorers, but mostly sort of the Italian and Spanish explorers of the 15th century and onward. Along that theme, "Star Trek" was all about missions of exploration. It wasn’t doing science. They figured, “We’ll do the science later. Let’s go out and explore, see what we can find.” That just took my interest in exploration to the ultimate level: the exploration of the cosmos.


Sara Seager

Sara Seager

Professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a JPL affiliate whose research seeks to analyze light from planets orbiting distant stars to learn which gases are present in their atmospheres.

Watching TV and doing math were just totally separate things in my mind. ("Star Trek") didn’t really necessarily inspire me, in the sense of, “Wow, I want to go travel to another planet.” I think what it did was really incredible: It was that it made it okay. Even though the TV shows defy logic in traveling faster than light and teleportation and everything—the transporter—it still makes it part of our cultural consciousness: there are planets, probably life out there.


Karl Stapelfeldt

Chief scientist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program, based at JPL.

Karl Stapelfeldt

In the 60s, for the "Star Trek" first run, I was little—five years old. I know I saw it back then because it is in my kindergarten coloring books.  One episode, with the planet-killer machine, must have made a big, scary impression on me, because I made drawings of it blasting things.  "Star Trek" presents a widely accessible vision of what might be out there in the broader universe.  People's interest in the show can be a launching point to discover the real science of astronomy and the real engineering of space travel. A lot of people in aerospace or science are fans of the show, not because we want to act out episodes, but because we'd love to travel/explore/learn about our universe.  We’d like to do this not just for ourselves but for the whole world, for all people who are curious about what's out there and how humanity fits in.


Marc Rayman

Director and chief engineer for NASA’s Dawn mission, which orbited the two most massive bodies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter; Rayman is based at JPL.

Marc Rayman

I started watching the "Star Trek" original series when it was on in reruns, when I was a youngster. I was a very avid "Star Trek" fan. I’d already been a very serious space buff; I knew in the fourth grade that I wanted to get a Ph.D. in physics. I only ever wanted to work for NASA. I started writing to JPL when I was nine years old. Two of the missions I worked on at JPL were Deep Space 1 and Dawn, which I’m working on now. Those are NASA’s only two planetary missions to use ion propulsion. The first time I ever heard of ion propulsion was in a "Star Trek" episode called “Spock’s Brain.”

Before I ever heard of "Star Trek" I was committed to the exploration of space, but "Star Trek" depicted the future I wanted to live in. They get to go to a new planet every week. They have all this wonderful technology. Sure, there was action and adventure, and that appeals to many people, including me. But more strongly appealing was the adventure of exploring the cosmos, at the same time expressing this vision of opportunity for everybody, and peace, and a noble spirit of adventure.


Gary Blackwood

Program manager for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program, JPL.

Gary Blackwood

It started real early for me in my household. "Sesame Street" and "Star Trek" were required watching. My mother said this was very important.

I still remember my first episode. It was the Horta [“Devil in the Dark”]. My parents were very interested in the space program, the moon landing, the space age. My mother projected this onto us, but "Star Trek" really gave me a sense of wonder—going to other stars on a spaceship, the stars flying by, that image on the screen. "Star Trek" always spoke to that greater vision, that greater achievement, what mankind could become. And it was set in the future, when many of the troubles of the current day have been worked through. That was the real theme Gene Roddenberry [the creator of "Star Trek"] worked into the episodes.


Steve Howell

Steve Howell

Project Scientist, NASA K2 Mission (Kepler space telescope), NASA Ames Research Center.

What really struck me about the "Star Trek" shows was that there were a lot of moral issues in them. It was kind of hidden, but not hidden that well. The other thing that struck me is that they would go to planets. They would find lots of planets. That was cool at the time, because we didn’t know about exoplanets. They never talked about what kind of star it was, or the orbit, or anything. They never really talked about the habitable zone, things like that. I just always loved science fiction. I liked that it showed the possibilities, let me dream about what I might like to do someday.