Most Star Trek stories from the vaunted franchise turning 50 this week take place in a distant future we're not likely to see. Unless, that is, Gene Roddenberry and his successors underestimated the pace of technological progress across Earth and the rest of the galaxy.
Turns out we're actually ahead of schedule when it comes to building many of the key components of that "classic" space-faring society from the 23rd and 24th centuries.
One of the key moments in the Trek universe comes in 2063 with the first demonstration of a human-built warp drive. The Vulcans are nearby enough to witness a new species gaining warp capability and initiating first contact with Earth, and we're off to the races with the fundamental premise for the franchise.
You might think the notion that humans will come up with the tech for faster-than-light travel in the next 47 years is preposterous. After all, it's been 47 years since we landed on the moon, and we still have yet to send a traveler any farther into space.
But there is at least some work happening now on this technology, and it could be on the verge of actually being taken somewhat seriously by the science and engineering community. Last year we learned that a NASA lab has been working on a controversial project called the EM drive. It's controversial because it would seem to violate the laws of physics, but if it actually works in space, it could drastically reduce the length of a trip to the moon, Mars or beyond.
It's not a warp drive, but it could be a stepping stone to developing faster-than-light transport. The concept has actually been around for years without starting any revolutions in space travel, but that might soon change. Late last month, Jose Rodal posted on the NASASpaceFlight forum that a research paper on the EM drive has actually passed peer review and could soon be published.
What's more, a community of EM drive enthusiasts is springing up and researchers affiliated with various governments, universities, small companies and even a few garage tinkerers are now working on their own version of the impossible technology, with at least a few aiming to test the drive in space to finally prove that it actually works.
So could we demonstrate actual warp capability by 2063 to keep pace with the Star Trek universe? The conventional wisdom is still that it's technically impossible, but stay tuned for a possible shift in that thinking if many EM drive demonstrations turn out to be successful (and that's a huge "if").
But that pesky warp drive is just one of the Trek tech challenges when it comes to converting the sci-fi franchise into science fact. Many of the gadgets and staples from the series, like the phaser, are already in development. The below video clip from the Smithsonian Channel's "Building Star Trek," which premiered online Tuesday, shows how a high-energy laser similar to the phaser is being developed in a Lockheed Martin lab. Not only could it be used to stun enemies, it can even track and destroy rockets.
Much of the other 23rd-century technology from Roddenberry's imagination is also quickly becoming real. Those nifty communicators are more than possible when you combine contemporary staples of technology like Bluetooth and cellular/satellite/mesh networks. And who needs a Holodeck when today's virtual-reality headsets are more portable?
But when you think about it, that's the easy stuff. Those devices reflect the needs and concerns of the mid-20th-century era from which Star Trek originally sprang. They address problems that we were already developing solutions for, so it's not entirely surprising those efforts have already started to come to fruition.
But what about some of the more far-out, imaginative and physics-bending innovations from the show, like cloaking, force fields and tractor beams?
In this clip from Smithsonian Channel's "Building Star Trek," a few University of Rochester scientists explain how they're working on a real-world cloaking device:
According to some Trekkers, this puts us a couple of centuries ahead of humans in the Trek universe in terms of starting to harness potential cloaking capabilities.
But it isn't just cloaking that's slowly being pulled out of imagined worlds of science fiction fantasy into the realm of the real -- we've also reported on efforts to create tractor beams (in water) and force fields that are no joke. They might not be able to act upon a huge object like a starship just yet, but the proof of concept is there. We could spend several decades working to scale up these innovations and still outperform the Star Trek timeline.
Elon Musk and other Mars-obsessed moguls are also pushing humanity to become a multi-planetary species much quicker than in the Trek universe. The first Martian colonies, according to a few episodes of "Voyager," didn't get going in that universe until 2103. If Musk's ambitions come through, there could be a human presence on the red planet several decades sooner.
So if you've ever dreamed of the possibility of one day joining Starfleet or living in a universe with more living long and prospering going on, don't give up hope. It doesn't have to be science fiction forever.
Of course, there is one key component to the Trek universe that's completely out of our control. So far there's nothing remotely approaching solid evidence of any other intelligent life out there beyond the International Space Station. Until we find out just how alone (or not) we are, we will find little use for our nascent cloaking devices and phasers.
The last bit of good news is that we're making steady progress in the search for intelligent life with the discovery of the nearest possible exoplanet to the sun and powerful new telescopes soon to come online to boost our search capabilities.
Inevitably, we will boldly go where no (hu)man has gone before, and it could be sooner than later if we continue to boldly invent all these things that have been imagined before.