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Sci-Tech

NASA's Star Trek dreams aren’t so crazy after all

Star Trek, Star Wars and Isaac Asimov run deep at NASA as its people work to turn science fiction into science fact.

expedition45crewposter

The Expedition 45 crew members to the ISS in 2015 rock Star Wars Jedi cosplay.

NASA

It's the mid-1980s. I'm sitting on the floor in my father's home office in front of a small television. Legs folded, leaning forward, I'm watching Mr. Spock commune with a lumpy rocklike alien.

Spock cries out "Pain! Pain! Pain!" and I ache, too, for Star Trek to be a real place where I could live, work and explore the universe.

I wasn't the only kid hooked on science fiction. I became a writer, but some of them ended up working for NASA, the closest real thing we have to the fictional Starfleet. 

Mr. Spock connects with the Horta.

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

NASA's all about the reality of space exploration, but its engineers, scientists and astronauts are still dreamers. They get lost in Isaac Asimov books, watch The Expanse and nerd out over Star Wars.

"I have always loved science fiction," says NASA astronomer Amy Mainzer. "It lets you try on ideas and see how they fit."

Oct. 1 marks NASA's 60th anniversary. The space agency began in 1958, the same year The Blob spooked theater audiences with visions of a deadly alien from the stars. Over the decades, Hollywood sci-fi has gotten more sophisticated, and NASA has embraced its connection to that culture as its space exploration triumphs have rivaled what we see on screen.

A love of science fiction threads through the space agency, and it's also part of NASA's public outreach. The agency has sought out exoplanets that mirror Star Wars planets, sent scientists to commune with fans at Comic-Cons and partnered with William Shatner, Capt. Kirk of the original Star Trek, to promote the Parker Solar Probe.

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The love runs both ways. In a NASA video honoring Star Trek's 50th anniversary in 2016, Shatner said, "It's phenomenal what NASA's doing with science that is, when you look at it, the equal of science fiction."

I talked with some of the people of NASA who hunt for asteroids, study dwarf planets and actually step out into the blackness of space, and together we roamed across a shared universe of science fiction.

On board the Enterprise

You might recognize Mike Fincke from his work in the 2005 finale episode of Star Trek: Enterprise. He's also a NASA astronaut who's spent 381 days in space and made a series of spacewalks.

Mike Fincke, center, plays an engineer on Star Trek: Enterprise.

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

I pump Fincke, 51, for information on his Star Trek experience, which he describes as surreal. "You feel like you're on a real spaceship, but there's a lot of smoke and mirrors involved," he tells me.

On the bridge of the Enterprise, Fincke found the dummy buttons amusing. "Aboard the space station, you cannot push any random button," he laughs. Fincke served as a science officer, flight engineer and later commander during his ISS stays in 2004 and 2009.

Though Enterprise doesn't always get a lot of love, Fincke has a soft spot for the show. "It was a little more real. The universal translator didn't always work, and things would break," he says. That's part of the reality of life in space, from the troubled Apollo 13 flight in 1970 to the leak discovered on the ISS in August.

Fincke, who lists Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein as favorites, devoured 100 books during his ISS visits. "It's a mind-blowing meta experience to read science fiction on board the space station," he says.

Ion propulsion in real life

When he was a kid, NASA's Marc Rayman, 61, read an Asimov story called Marooned Off Vesta. It was 1938 when Asimov wrote the tale of a damaged spaceship trapped in orbit around the asteroid.

Buzz Aldrin on the moon

Read more about NASA on its 60th anniversary.

NASA

In 2011, NASA's unmanned Dawn spacecraft arrived to study Vesta up close. Rayman, who joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California in 1986, is the director and chief engineer for the Dawn mission. "That was really cool to be able to send a spacecraft to this distant world that was the subject of a short story I had read when I was still in junior high school," he says.

Dawn has traveled great distances since its 2007 launch because of its innovative ion propulsion system. The system debuted on NASA's technology-testing 1998 Deep Space 1 mission and was almost saddled with the acronym "NSTAR." Thanks to Star Trek and Star Wars and Rayman's insistence, it's now known as ion propulsion.

Trek fans will remember the 1968 episode Spock's Brain when the Enterprise encounters an advanced alien race. Mr. Scott admires their spacecraft, saying, "I've never seen anything like her. And ion propulsion at that. They could teach us a thing or two."

Says Rayman, "If you call it an ion propulsion system, every Star Trek fan will at least have heard the term. Star Wars fans will know that's what powers the TIE fighters."

Real-world ion propulsion is very different from the fictional versions. Dawn doesn't have the agility of a TIE fighter, but it achieves what Rayman calls "acceleration with patience."

Rayman is now overseeing the end days of the Dawn mission, which will wrap up this fall when the spacecraft goes silent in orbit around dwarf planet Ceres. Ceres is now a famous sci-fi location thanks to the success of The Expanse books and TV series. Rayman enjoyed the three books even though the fictional Ceres doesn't much resemble the real thing.

Asteroid hunter

Before interviewing Amy Mainzer, 44, the principal investigator for NASA's Neowise asteroid-hunting mission, I check out her Twitter page. I find her wearing an old-school Star Trek sciences uniform in her profile picture and I immediately feel a sense of kinship.

This artist's illustration of the WISE spacecraft is worthy of a sci-fi show.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Mainzer grew up loving astronomy and science fiction at the same time. "To me, science fiction has always been about thought experiments and letting you see a vision of the future and trying out ideas," she says. She joined NASA's JPL in 2003.

She mentions author Diane Duane, who contributed a dozen Star Trek novels to the franchise. I'm blown away because I remember being a kid and reading and re-reading Duane's Vulcan-focused book Spock's World, which rates as my favorite piece of Trek literature. Mainzer calls Spock's deductive reasoning "a superpower worth having."

I wonder if NASA scientists, brainiacs that they are, have trouble suspending disbelief when it comes to science fiction. But all their knowledge doesn't seem to stop them from enjoying other worlds. "It's hard to watch stuff without being a little critical sometimes, but a great story will pull you in regardless of any technical flaws," says Mainzer.

Raised on sci-fi

Tracy Drain is a flight systems engineer with NASA who worked on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter when she joined JPL in 2000. She's since contributed to the Kepler and Juno missions, and is now focused on the 2022 Psyche mission to study a metallic asteroid.

Thanks to her sci-fi-loving mother, Drain grew up watching everything from The Black Hole, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica to actual space shuttle launches.

Star Trek's William Shatner met NASA's Tracy Drain during a visit to JPL.

NASA

"I grew up hoping the future of humankind would look like Star Trek," she says. "I gravitated toward engineering as a way to build and design things that will nudge our world to look more like the worlds in science fiction shows."

Drain, 42, has gotten over her one major sci-fi pet peeve, which is Hollywood's depiction of packed asteroid belts, as made famous in Star Wars. "That's not how it is at all. They are far apart," she says. She now accepts that a bit of Hollywood exaggeration is sometimes called for to heighten the drama, and she's OK with that.

Still, she'd like to see good science make its way into movies and shows. She acts as a consultant to The Science & Entertainment Exchange, a group that connects Hollywood figures with real scientists. "Hollywood shouldn't be expected to educate the masses," she says, "but why not throw some good science in there?"

Star Wars vs. Star Trek

There's a nagging question at the back of my mind as I'm talking to all these NASA people. It's the classic sci-fi fan dilemma: Star Wars or Star Trek?

It turns out my newfound NASA buddies aren't in a rush to take sides, though I detect a certain bias towards Star Trek. This isn't surprising coming from a space agency that in the 1970s named a space shuttle "Enterprise."

Members of the original Star Trek cast stand in front of the space shuttle Enterprise in 1976. Left to right: James D. Fletcher, NASA administrator; DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy); George Takei (Mr. Sulu); Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura); Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock); Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek's creator); an unidentified man; and Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov). The bearded fellow behind Takei and Nichols appears to be James Doohan (Mr. Scott).

NASA

Rayman comes down more on the Star Trek side. As for Star Wars, he says, "I would like to have a lot of their gadgetry, but I wouldn't be very fond of the culture or conditions in which they live."

Drain says, "My knee-jerk reaction is more Star Trek at NASA, but that's probably just because it's how I feel about it." She says Star Trek made her want to grow up and do the things she saw in the shows, while Star Wars feels more afloat in a world of fantasy.

Don't fret, Star Wars fans. There's plenty of love to go around. Just remember when the ISS Expedition 45 crew dressed up as lightsaber-wielding Jedi in 2015.

A wish for sci-fi made real

Asked what science fiction tech they'd most like to see become real, the answers skew Star Trek. Transporter, says Mainzer. Holodeck, says Drain, or maybe a replicator.

Fincke envies his science-fiction heroes and their access to interstellar travel. "For me, it would have to be a way to beat the speed of light so we could go to the stars," he says.

I see the kid I was, the one who played with the Princess Leia action figure and devoured the Starfleet Technical Manual, and the person I am now, binge-watching The Expanse and wearing my Capt. Kirk uniform, reflected in the people of NASA today.

NASA astronaut Mike Fincke enjoys an apple on the ISS in 2004.

NASA

After talking with these NASA heroes about TIE fighters and Belters and Vulcans, I'm left with a series of lingering images in my mind. They're the photos of Mike Fincke during his time in space. He's floating in microgravity and there's a smile on his face the size of Saturn's rings.

"It was even better than I thought it would be," Fincke says. And suddenly I'm 10 again, hearing the Star Trek theme song and dreaming of stars sailing past the windows at warp speed.

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