For some, the journey to Pasadena and its science community began on a flight of fantasy into a final frontier with the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. In fact, in some ways Pasadena could be considered an informal “Star Trek” convention that convenes every day.
“If it weren’t for ‘Star Trek’ I don’t know what I would be doing right now,” Michael L. Wong, a PhD candidate in planetary science at Caltech, confessed in a recent phone interview. Just last year, Wong played Sulu in an original “Star Trek” musical produced at Caltech, and he hosts a podcast: “Strange New Worlds: A Science & Star Trek Podcast.”
“The density for ‘Star Trek’ fandom is pretty high in Pasadena,” Wong said.
Wong grew up on “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” with nostalgic side trips into “Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS).” But for another generation, TOS ran at the same time (1966-1969) that the Apollo program (1961-1975) was generating excitement.
Robert Hurt, Spitzer visualization scientist at the Infrared Processing & Analysis Center at Caltech, notes that “While the space science in the original series ‘Star Trek’ is not very good, it was successful in instilling the excitement in science of the stars and other planets.”
Science system engineer Kim Steadman of the Mars Science Lab who works on the Mars 2020 Rover, became interested in robotic exploration of space under the influence of both.
“‘Star Trek’ was the thing that reached out and grabbed me,” planetary physicist Kevin R. Grazier recalled. He also read ‘Star Trek’ novelizations. Grazier, who was at JPL from 1995 to 2011, has moved on to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
Of course, “Star Trek” is not the only science fiction that drives and continues to inspire scientists at JPL and Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA. There were other TV series that ventured into different frontiers and explored strange new worlds, shows like “Lost in Space.”
Steadman remembers a time when science fiction wasn’t written for children, and she read classics such as “The War of the Worlds,” “The Time Machine,” the “John Carter of Mars” series and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne. She also read X-Men and Superboy comic books.
Hurt was reading Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and expanded in college to Glendale-born David Brin (“The Postman”) and San Diego-born Greg Bear and Laguna Beach resident Gregory Benford. Besides “Star Trek,” Steadman watched “The Planet of the Apes” TV series, “Doctor Who” and “Battlestar Galactica” (BSG).
“Star Trek” opened the door for Grazier to become a consultant on BSG. He met Bryan Fuller during his involvement on “Star Trek: Voyager,” and Fuller recommended Grazier for a consulting gig on the show.
More recently, he helped on the Oscar-winning “Gravity.” That film starred George Clooney and Sandra Bullock and was part of a trend that Steadman feels began with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the 1979 “Alien.”
“Women get much better roles” since the “Alien” series portrayed “a woman who is strong and could look after herself,” Steadman said.
The Mars 2020 Rover is trying to catch up with some technology imagined on the film “The Martian”: A machine to generate oxygen. Mars 2020 has MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment).
With “The Big Bang Theory” a national hit, things have drastically changed since the “Star Trek: TOS” era.
“Geeks won the cultural war,” Hurt said.
Steadman also noted that science fiction and fantasy are everywhere nowadays, but Hurt was alarmed at “cynical dystopian” visualizations of the future. He’s not interested in how deep we can sink and whether we can crawl out of the hole. He’s more interested in “the awe and mystery and inspiration” of the future.
“As a scientist, I’m frustrated with the science as the enemy view or the soulless scientist has created the problem,” Hurt said. “To have the second-in-command a scientist was a powerful statement” in TOS, he said. Spock was “a scientist in a leadership position who helps the captain and crew understand how things work.”
With JPL and Caltech in Pasadena, we’ll always have a tie between science fact and fiction. Because of a willingness to ask whether or not something can be done, Grazier noted, “What they do on a daily basis is science fiction.”