“Space… The Final Frontier…”
I am not where I am because of Star Trek.
You’ll see interviews sometimes with NASA folks, including astronauts, who say Star Trek inspired their love of space.
For me, if anything, it was the opposite.
I grew up in a golden era for space. The first Star Trek movie came out when I was four. “Empire Strikes Back’ was the next year. The first space shuttle launched the year after that.
The idea of space, the excitement of exploration, the siren call of the stars and the adventure that lay between them was a thread woven liberally and integrally into the fabric of my childhood. It fed my love of Star Trek and Star Wars, of the Black Hole and Battlestar Galactica, and it fed my love of NASA and the real world of space exploration.
For years, I’m not sure if I leaned more toward the lightsaber or the phaser, but by middle school, Star Trek had won out. I was Spock for Halloween. I built model starships. I read new Star Trek novels voraciously as they came out each month. I eagerly awaited the launch of The Next Generation, and then followed this new crew’s adventures each week, even if they were clearly inferior to the classic.
At one point, I began writing my own Star Trek novel. It’s long since lost now, but my memory is that I got decently far into it for a middle schooler. The plot involved a hole in space that turned out to be a temporal anomaly, such that the probe the Enterprise fired into it went back in time and landed on the Klingon homeworld, causing the Klingons in the Enterprise’s time to suddenly be technology advanced. What are the odds, you know?
I was writing in a time when the Star Trek canon consisted of 79 episodes and four movies. Today, there’s probably some continuity bible that officially proscribes the name of the first wife of Sulu’s second cousin, but back then, the universe was largely unexplored, and there was room for writers to fill it out. Some of my additions in retrospect were cringeworthy, but back then, they weren’t wrong. There was no official reason to preclude the possibility that Klingons often drank a beverage called “kol’tuns,” other than good sense.
I never finished my Star Trek novel.
I have written two books about actual space.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Star Trek novel, but I still watch every Star Trek movie that comes out, and I’m very interested in the new TV series. But today, my favorite space vehicle has neither S-foils nor warp-nacelles, but two five-segment solid rocket boosters.
It was an incredibly experience writing books not about the fictional future of space, but about actual accomplishments of real spacefarers. But even more amazing is now getting to do in real life what I sought to do with that book — to be part of adding to the story, of filling out the next chapters. Of exploring a little bit more of that universe.
Because, on this 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the work we’re doing in the real world echoes back to the work of Kirk and his crews.
I get to sit in on meetings regularly about such topics as the first human landings on Mars, or sending probes to icy Europa, and the plans scientists have for studying the past or current habitability of those places.
Or, to put it less prosaically, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life.
But there’s more to it than that. A big part of the appeal of Star Trek was always the idea of a brighter future, and of the call of the unknown. It’s the part that resonated with me; it’s the part that has inspired others. It’s the part that I aspire to in my own work.
NASA, like Star Trek, offers the idea that we can be more than what we are, as a society and as individuals. It encourages and challenges us to reach further than we have. To know all that is knowable. To learn, to build, to explore.
To boldly go where no one has gone before.
When I get to give talks about NASA’s Journey to Mars, I walk through most of the voyage with sexy, inspiring artist’s renditions — a shiny Orion beyond the moon on its next launch, a habitat module keeping astronauts alive for long durations in deep space, an astronauts standing on the surface of Phobos with rusty Mars looming in the sky overhead.
But when I get to the end of the journey, I ditch the artist concepts, and instead of showing an astronaut on Mars, I show this photograph instead.
The Curiosity rover landed on Mars four years ago today, and this is what Times Square looked like when it happened.
In the middle of the night, people packed the place to watch a robot land on another planet.
Why? Because this is who we are. Because as a people, we have our differences and our struggles and our frustrations, but as a people, we yearn to be better. We yearn to be more than what we are. We yearn to reach farther.
And when we do, we as a people celebrate that part of ourselves.
Instead of showing a picture of an astronaut on Mars, I show this picture of Times Square. I tell the audience what it is, what it captures.
I challenge them to picture what Times Square will look like the day that, instead of watching a robot, we’re watching a human land on Mars.
I use this picture because, as much as I’m excited about what we’ll find when we get to Mars, I believe that what will happen on Mars that day is less important than what will happen in Times Square that day. What that day will mean for us as a people. What we will celebrate.
My favorite, though, is giving the talk to teenagers today. I talk about everything that has to happen over the next 20 or so years to prepare for that moment. I remind them that when that day comes, they’ll be the same age Neil Armstrong was when he took the first step on the moon. That they today are exactly the right age to be the one to take that first step on Mars.
I show them that picture of Times Square, and challenge them to think about what it will look like when its a human instead of a robot. If that many people came out to see a rover, when it’s a human being taking our first step on another planet, I tell them, everyone will be there.
“Everyone,” I say, “except you.”
“Because where will you be?”
After all, somebody’s got to take that step.
Driving down to the see the latest progress at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility outside of new Orleans, where welding takes place for the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew modules, I was struck by dichotomy.
The event was taking place two weeks before Mardi Gras, and already that spirit was in the air — visitors to the event I was going to were fed king’s cake and received beads as their group identifiers. But then, the spirit of Mardi Gras is never really gone from New Orleans, is it? You think of everything that the name New Orleans evokes, and that’s where we’re building the biggest rocket in history. Again.
I don’t write a lot of poetry (or, you know, for decades, any), but it seemed the best way to capture how appropriate that juxtaposition is.
Only These Bones
The ground too shallow for its dead.
Old bones, old stones;
History creates mystery.
The old world becomes ever new,
But here the new world remains ever old.
strewn all over.
Foreign streets of Bacchus’ own.
Emerald and amethyst and gold.
Here abide vampires and spirits,
In a quarter owned by flesh.
A city challenging the sea.
Winds tear, waters dare,
The buildings rise again.
The storms, looming, relentless,
The city’s heart more relentless still.
A tower taking shape.
Eyes toward unwalked ground.
A city’s history, magick, resolution
Come together in a rocket’s heart.
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the rocket plant…