Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Captain's Log: Scotty's Final Frontier
The Falcon 9, a nine engine rocket and an unmanned capsule is on its way to the International Space Station, the first such commercial venture into space. (That's a photo of its first few minutes of flight.) And aboard were some of the ashes of James Doohan. It's a moving moment for Star Trek fans, particularly those of us who were present for Doohan's last convention appearance, which was a tribute to him and the character he created. He joins Gene and Majel Roddenberry on the final frontier.
Meanwhile, there's an engineer with a detailed plan to build a space-worthy version of the starship Enterprise by 2032. He proposes a large ion-propulsion craft with artificial gravity that's capable of exploring the solar system, if not the galaxy. The price however would be astronomical.
A Scientific American article entitled The Final Environmental Frontier: Space Development and Its Consequences takes a serious look at the subject, as does the American History Museum exhibition "Beyond Planet Earth." Linking all three of these projects (the SpaceX Falcon 9 as a forerunner of commercial spaceflights, the Enterprise proposed as opening up asteroid mining, and this exhibition) is the exploitation of space, particularly for mining.
For all the enthusiasm that new space ventures generate among Trek fans, it is also a very Star Trek sort of enterprise to think seriously about the implications, and especially not to make the same mistakes as the commercial interests made on Earth. In Star Trek stories, the emphasis was on not exploiting alien civilizations (which was what the Prime Directive was really about) as some corporation-backed human explorers did in enslaving and oppressing "alien" peoples. But the same principle is involved in other forms of life and the environment itself. There have to be rules, and there has to be forethought. It's only logical.
The latest in a line of Star Trek-inspired or influenced inventions is the "Google Glasses," or at least that's the way Wired Magazine saw it, coupling a photo of the prototype with Geordi LaForge and his VISOR. Star Trek has inspired generations to dream up ways to realize its technologies, and that process goes on. Here's a Smithsonian post that credits Star Trek with inspiring the cell phone, but also names 10 other inventions inspired by other science-fiction. I'd take it all with a grain of salt (I'm not sure the Leo Szilard connection to H.G. Wells was precisely as they say) but it is further testament to the power of imagination and the often ridiculed science fiction dreamers.