How Star Trek predicted the future

WHEN Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry first dreamed up the concept of a television show based in the unexplored universe of Outer Space in 1964, the world was a very different place.

As a Los Angeles ex-cop turned Hollywood screenwriter, Roddenberry’s vision of the series he described as “a Wagon Train to the stars” was decades ahead of its time. Inspired by JFK’s promise to chart “the great unknown beyond our solar system”, Roddenberry’s Star Trek represented a fantasy of technological possibilities that even scientists of the day hadn’t yet begun to harness. Back then, telephones were wall mounted devices installed by trained technicians; computers were enormous contraptions used only by governments; televisions were cumbersome boxes with snowy images on screens measuring a maximum of 23 inches; video cassettes were still a decade away from mass production; and the internet would not see the light of day for another 30 years.

For Captain Kirk and his intergalactic cohorts, however, life on the final frontier was a whole different galaxy of hot babes in tight tunics, voice activated pods, transporter bays, and the ubiquitous sight of computers running everything from life-support systems to long-range sensors. “Reality is incredibly larger and infinitely more exciting than the flesh and blood vehicle we travel in here,” Roddenberry believed.

“Science knows still practically nothing about the real nature of matter, energy, dimension, or time; and even less about those remarkable things called life and thought. But whatever the meaning and purpose of this universe, you are a legitimate part of it.”

In a legacy spanning four TV series and 11 feature films, director JJ Abrams was conscious of keeping the delicate balance between paying affectionate homage to an iconic piece of pop culture while hurtling it into uncharted territory for a new generation in the latest film — Star Trek Into Darkness.

The same faces are present — Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov — but this time facing a brilliantly unpredictable new enemy. “This movie goes further in every way. There are volcanic planets, wild spaceship chases, and massive special effects, but there is also a more nuanced story,” says Abrams.

“The Enterprise crew is up against a lot more this time in terms of their personal and moral dilemmas as they face questions of trust, loyalty and what happens to your principles when you are put to the most extreme test? The goal we had was to keep all the comedy, humanity and buoyancy while going into more complex and darker territory.”

How star trek technology predicted the future

Gene Roddenberry believed that “the human future is bright, we’re just beginning. We have wonders ahead of us. I don’t see how it can be any other way”. Mindful of that spirit of invention and adventure, JJ Abrams took his cast and crew to the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, site of research into the future of energy where 192 of the world’s most intense laser beams are being used to crack the secrets of matter and to explore thermonuclear fusion.

As a top-secret government facility, NIF generally does not allow film crews — but Star Trek was no ordinary film crew. Many of the scientists working at the facility admitted being inspired into their careers of futuristic research from watching Star Trek as kids. Dr Edward Moses, principal associate director for NIF and the Photon Science Directorate, says: “For many years we’ve been waiting for Star Trek to realise they should be here. This is a very futuristic facility, and I think we’ve all been influenced by Star Trek’s vision of the future.”

As a signpost to today’s world where technology is incorporated into every modern convenience from homes to cars to phones, Star Trek became a cultural phenomenon which inspired new generations to emulate the activities they watched on TV as kids.

Even Nasa itself had many die-hard Trekkies among its staff, including Mark Rayman, chief engineer at its Jet Propulsion Lab, who said the show inspired him by “offering a vision of what could be”.

Mae Jemison, the first African-American in space, began her communications with “All hailing frequencies are open” — the signature phrase of Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura.

The mobile communicator

When Captain Kirk whipped out his trusty flip-top and demanded, “Beam me up, Scotty”, he said a mouthful for a technology that now dominates the world. What was once the preserve of deep space is now one of the most common links on Earth with billions of handhelds in existence. Mobile inventor Martin Cooper admits he was inspired by Star Trek while working at Motorola in the ’70s. Interestingly, Kirk sometimes found himself ‘out of contact’ with the ship — a mirror of today’s ‘blackspots’.

CDs and DVDs

When Spock needed information that wasn’t readily stored in his Vulcan brain, he reached for those rectangular pieces of plastic to insert in his console — a mirror image of today’s information discs.

Phasers

Regardless of how many Klingons were attacking, Kirk’s trusty phaser was generally enough to put manners on ’em. With the electronically charged Taser in existence for the past decade by police forces around the world, the next generation of these “directed energy” weapons is already under development delivering “man-made lightning” in deadly pulses.

Touchscreens

Next time you print off a train, bus, or plane ticket, spare a thought for Star Trek where practically every device on the bridge responded to finger pressure. Still an evolving technology that’s only been with us for a few years, it is increasingly found in street maps, department store guides, and entertainment listings.

The tricorder

Tricorders had multiple functions but the medical version used by Bones McCoy could scan, diagnose, and heal injured or sick patients. It could analyse local atmosphere, search for inhabiting life forms, and answer those tricky questions Spock often posed. Say hello to the Smartphone 2013. Capable of downloading an A to Z of medical conditions, world atlas road maps, movies, historical facts and drawings of ancient monuments, the must-have device would have been hot gear on the Enterprise.

The hypospray

Bones often bemoaned the “savage and outdated practices” of 21st century medicine. Needles were a no-no in outer space, with a hypospray used to inject medication without pricking any blood. SonoPrep — a non-needle invented in 2005 — penetrates the outer skin without pain and self-seals. US brain surgeon John Adler was inspired by Star Trek to invent the Cyber Knife — a computer-controlled laser capable of removing cancers without opening up the patient. “Not quite as cool as Star Trek, but we’re getting there,” he said.

Cloaking device

The Romulans were always sneaking up on Kirk using their dastardly cloaking device capable of rendering their ships invisible to any sort of radar. Enter the US Air Force’s B2 Stealth bomber and its radar-absorbent coating which enables it to fly undetected through enemy airspace.

The holodeck

Definitely one of the series’ most ‘out there’ concepts, the Holodeck or Holographic Environment Simulator by its proper name, was a technology capable of recreating any chosen environment within the confines of the Enterprise. Designed as a chill-out zone to help the crew relax on long voyages, it allowed them experience a variety of environments obviously not available in outer space. With modern virtual reality designs still being perfected, the possibility of every home having holodecks for holidays and adventures without leaving the house is a definite probability within the next decade.


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