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Wayne Hale's NASA Blog: Real Life is Not Like Star Trek

Status Report From: NASA Blogs
Posted: Friday, July 10, 2009

image For my birthday, my son and fellow Star Trek aficionado gave me some DVDs with the old TV series. Needless to say, I have made a lengthy review of the subject lasting far into the evenings over the last week or so.

As a fictional future, Star Trek set a high standard: there was always in interesting planet to explore, every week there was a challenging interpersonal (interspecies?!) relationship to develop, the good guys always won, camaraderie reigned supreme. Even logic and reason, while important, were shown to be inferior to human intuition and compassion. Every episode left you with the feeling that things just would just get better and better. What an exciting, upbeat, pleasantly challenging universe we would encounter in the future! Pop culture was profoundly affected: "Beam me up Scotty!"

So my evaluation of the genre? Star Trek ruined an entire generation, maybe two.

Don't get me wrong - I really enjoy the old series (except maybe for the first movie). I still do. I indoctrinated my kids and they are working on indoctrinating my grandkids. Beam me up Scotty, indeed.

Alas, one of the most poignant Dilbert cartoons of all time has a senior engineer telling a naive young intern to "climb into the Jeffries tube" (the air conditioning duct) to get to "engineering" where an impending disaster could to be averted. After the intern gets stuck in the duct, the senior engineer says "this is where the intern finds out that life is not like Star Trek". Too true: real life is not like Star Trek.

We have not found any alien civilizations (yet), nor life of any kind elsewhere. Even the evidence for fossilized life on some meteorites is highly controversial. Humans have briefly scouted exactly one other world full of "magnificent desolation." Most of our human time has been spent in low earth orbit, eking out a toehold in space. Some of our robots have visited more worlds and their splendid visits give us some hope for future exploration.

But for my generation, indoctrinated in the Star Trek mythos, the bar was set high and in real life the results have been, well, meager. Space exploration has lead to the development of loads of new technologies (GPS, direct broadcast satellite TV), and there have been many examples of courage and heroes to inspire us; but we are a little short in the interaction-with-beings-from-other planets department. (No UFO letters please).

Real life has turned out to be a lot darker and more complicated than any of the TV episodes or even the movies. Nothing really gets settled in an hour in real life, does it?

Over the years the Star Trek franchise also changed as the new episodes became darker and less optimistic. Picard stuck in endless battles with the Borg; Voyager never going to make it home, Deep Space 9 battling shape shifters to an inconclusive standoff, and Enterprise which became a dark soap opera centered on the relationships between the crewmembers. The last movie has become the of the darkest of all - exchanging a bright future timeline for a more sordid and darker one. Sigh. So much for "rebooting" the future.

(Meanwhile, I have often pondered the metaphorical symbolism of the Borg Collective as a substitute for the OMB. Really. "Resistance is Futile." Think about it.)

If the Star Trek writers were to make a more real-life episode, it would probably have consisted of Jean-Luc Picard testifying before the Federation Senate subcommittee on the Star Fleet budget and how it was inadequate to carry out the exploration mission which was the primary reason for the existence of the Fleet. An interesting or exciting episode? No. But then, as I said before: real life is not like Star Trek.

So a whole generation or maybe three has been ruined to expect excitement, glamour, interspecies interaction, and a host of things that space exploration in the real universe simply does not provide. Ruined. Expectations set too high. Thus we have many people who might otherwise support space exploration but are disappointed by its current status.

I was fortunate to have a personal interaction with the Great Bird of the Galaxy, Gene Roddenberry while I was in college in the early 70's. His vision - and it remained constant until he passed away - was of an optimistic future. A future where hard work, risk taking, and good judgment, trust, and compassion would lead to rewards for both the individual and society as a whole. The franchise did not turn dark until he was gone.

Call me a pollyanna if you like, but I agree with Roddenberry. There is an exciting future out there for us.

I guess I really have been ruined because I really do - at my core - believe that hard work, risk taking, good judgment, trust, and compassion will lead to great rewards for our whole society. All the societies on Earth. Heck, even those alien societies we may encounter some day.

Now if we could just get a Zefram Cochrane to show us how to travel a warp speed . . . .

. . . . maybe real life would become like Star Trek.

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