Cosmic Voyages

The characterization of Edwin Hubble maneuvering the 100-inch reflector like a mariner upon a vast sea evokes another celebrated captain who navigated the depths of space in the science fiction television series Star Trek launched in September 1966. As noted in the chapter on the Voyager mission, Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise, portrayed by William Shatner, commanded a fictional five-year mission to explore the far reaches of our galaxy.

When Gene Roddenberry began producing Star Trek, the world’s attention was turned toward space as the final frontier and the dream of traveling vast distances across our galaxy was at a fever pitch. The Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s cap­tivated audiences around the world, who watched with trepidation as Neil Armstrong, and through him humankind, stepped onto the surface of another world for the first time. We delighted in watch­ing the astronauts skipping and hopping across the lunar surface, and bounding lazily over cratered terrain in the lunar rover. The final episode of the original Star Trek series was broadcast in June 1969, just a month before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stood on the lunar surface. Many in that generation came away from the truncated Apollo program wistful that the limits of money and politics prevented NASA from further manned lunar exploration.

One effect of Star Trek first airing in the runup to the moon landing was that the series inspired the first space-faring genera­tion, including many at NASA. William Shatner writes of the origi­nal series that “every time [NASA] launched a manned rocket our ratings went up, meaning people were very interested in space: and when our ratings went up Congress voted more money for the space program.” Even if we don’t assign causation, this is interest­ing. The perceived interconnection between Star Trek and NASA extended to NASA itself. Shatner recalls:

NASA officials often invited us to launches, and finally I decided to go to one of them. They treated me as space royalty, eventually allowing me to sit in the LEM, the moon landing module, with an astronaut. I was lying in the hammock like seats. . . looking out of the small win­dows at the universe displayed as the astronauts would see it. The astronaut, who was teaching me how to fly this craft, told me to look at a certain section of the star system—and as I did, flying beautifully across the entire horizon came the Starship Enterprise.59

That model of the Enterprise was assembled, Shatner points out, by some of the same engineers who built the Apollo spacecraft that landed on the Moon.

So compelling was Roddenberry’s vision that in the late 1970s, the space agency recruited Nichelle Nichols, who played commu­nications officer Lieutenant Uhura in the original series, to help in attracting young people to NASA’s program. In 1977, NASA had received roughly 1,600 applications for new hires, but fewer than one hundred from women, and far fewer from minorities. Within four months of Nichols’s recruiting, applications rocketed up to 8,400, with approximately 1,650 from women and 1,000 from minority candidates.60 Years later, in 1992, during the STS 47 mission, Space Shuttle astronaut Mae Jemison, the first Afri­can American woman in space, made it her practice, in honor of Nichelle Nichols, to begin each of her shifts with “Hailing frequen­cies open,” an often scripted line for Nichols.61 That same year, in 1992, in recognition of Star Trek’s contribution to the popular fas­cination with space exploration, a portion of Roddenberry’s ashes were flown aboard Space Shuttle Columbia.

Fred Hoyle predicted over sixty years ago that when “the sheer isolation of the Earth [had] become plain to every man whatever his nationality or creed. . . a new idea as powerful as any in his­tory will be let loose.” Hoyle optimistically expected “this not so distant development may well be for the good, as it must in­creasingly have the effect of exposing the futility of nationalistic strife” and would inevitably reconfigure “the whole organization of society.”62 Hoyle’s point about a new understanding of Earth in the context of the vastness of space is in part why Star Trek and, later, the Hubble Space Telescope, garnered such global interest. Both NASA and Star Trek contributed to a deep cultural narrative about the possibilities of exploring the universe through interna­tional collaboration. Only twenty-four men traveled to the Moon, but unimaginable surveys of deep space have been realized via the Hubble Space Telescope. The telescope continues to capture and convey stunning images of galaxies and nebula and inspire a new generation who dreams of a time when not just a handful of care­fully selected astronauts, but they themselves can explore worlds within our galaxy and beyond. That powerful cultural dream has been realized as Hubble’s cameras extend our vision to the very limits of the observable universe.

When the Apollo 8 astronauts toured the world upon return from the Moon, command module pilot Michael Collins recalls that regardless of which nations they visited, people congratulated them on the fact that “we,” humankind, made it to the Moon.63

Collins noted that people around the world embraced the Moon landing as a collective human achievement. The Hubble Space Telescope, an international effort between NASA and the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA), is similarly embraced and loved globally as a shared human achievement. Hubble’s remarkable images have forever altered our understanding of the cosmos and demonstrate how far humankind has reached across the universe in our as yet most palpable survey of the intergalactic abyss.