Monday, May 16, 2016

Trek50: Science Fiction, Science and Star Trek

Trek50 is a series exploring aspects of the soul of Star Trek in its 50th anniversary year.

When Star Trek began nearly 50 years ago as the first prime time television science fiction drama series, it deliberately set out to maintain strong ties to both science fiction writers and science itself.  In the decades since, science fiction or "space opera" on screens has drifted away from these connections.  Many feature films employ scientific advisers, and some notable recent near-future space movies attempted to stay within scientific and technological knowns.  But that particular combination of science fiction and science that Star Trek achieved remains special.

However, the intention of Star Trek's creators to involve science fiction writers was not entirely new at the time.  On radio, Dimension X dramatized some classic science fiction stories by Robert Heinlein (including his story, "The Roads Must Roll"), Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles), Isaac Asimov and others. "It was the Star Trek of radio," wrote radio historian Gerald Nachman, "praised for its basic dramatic strengths."  It ran only one season (1950-51) but spawned a more successful series X-Minus One, which partnered with Galaxy Magazine for its stories.  Ironically, this series ran on the NBC radio network in the mid-50s, for--you guessed it--three seasons.

Star Trek tried to use stories by science fiction writers, though writing for network television within budget was a challenge.  Some Trek teleplays adapted science fiction stories, but perhaps the biggest influence from science fiction writers came informally, through their writings (including Robert Heinlein's), advice and ultimately the friendships that Gene Roddenberry and others made with such important writers as Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov.

An important characteristic of many of these science fiction writers is their knowledge and even expertise in science and technology.  Asimov was a professor of biochemistry and Clarke had degrees in mathematics and physics.  They were not unusual in this regard.  Even sci-fi pulp authors like E.E. Smith had degrees in chemistry and physics. Others were engineers or worked in applied technology.  This goes back all the way to H.G. Wells (degree in biology) and Jules Verne (who "worked very closely with scientists," according to Robert Heinlein, an engineer with graduate work in math and physics.)

A science background linked to imagination sometimes meant that such science fiction writers made real world contributions.  Perhaps the most important so far was Arthur C. Clarke, who came up with the idea of communications satellites. But a more direct contribution is the fascinating story of the space suit.

According to his account, Robert Heinlein first saw a description of a space suit in a 1931 story by Edmond Hamilton, who became most famous for his Captain Future stories.  In 1939, Heinlein wrote a story "which made much use of spacesuits" and created an "elaborated version" of Hamilton's.  Heinlein had been in the Navy, and a former shipmate who was by then engaged in aviation research read this story.  When World War II started, that shipmate--Rear Admiral A.B. Scoles--put Heinlein in charge of developing a real high-altitude pressure suit.

Heinlein worked on it, and passed the project onto L. Sprague de Camp, who in addition to being an aeronautical and mechanical engineer was also a prominent science fiction writer.  Eventually, the high-altitude pressure suits that not one but two science fiction writers helped develop became the basis for NASA spacesuits.  As well as spacesuits in science fiction movies and print stories, including Heinlein's 1958 juvenile s/f novel "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel."

When it comes to the science of space travel, science fiction writers in some ways came first. “Astronautics is unique among all the sciences because it owes its origin to an art form," writes astronomical artist Ron Miller. "Long before engineers and scientists took the possibility of spaceflight seriously, virtually all of its aspects were explored first in art and literature, and long before the scientists themselves were taken seriously, the arts kept the torch of interest burning..."

In fact the early 20th century pioneers of rocketry were inspired by science fiction, and eventually wrote their own science fiction stories.  In Russia, Konstatin Tsiolkovsy was inspired by reading Jules Verne.  American Robert Goddard was inspired by H.G. Wells.  German Hermann Oberth, also inspired by Verne, not only made practical contributions to rocketry--he was also a science advisor to the 1929 German space travel movie, Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), directed by Fritz Lang (whose Metropolis would be a s/f classic.)  This movie inspired a boy of a later generation to become a rocket engineer.  He was Krafft Ehricke, designer of the Atlas booster that sent the first Americans into orbit.

This film, incidentally, made another contribution to real rocketry: the countdown.  It was the first (but hardly the last) time the simple 5-4-3-2-1 was used to launch a fictional spacecraft.  Eventually NASA elaborated it into a long checking process, and substituted "Lift-off" for the (by then) traditional BLAST-OFF!

Even long before the 20th century, pioneer astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote a very early science fiction tale called The Dream, which depicted in great detail a visit to the moon, largely based on the science of the day which included the first telescopic observations.  (Carl Sagan's Cosmos book goes into detail, noting that partly because of misunderstandings based on this book, Kepler was forced into exile, which he spent in a town called Sagan.)

The intermix of scientists and engineers with science fiction forecast other aspects of our Space Age.  Artificial space satellites were first proposed in science fiction novels as early as Edward Everett Hale's The Brick Moon in 1869.  An Austrian engineer and a German science fiction writer each described a working space station in 1928.  Such a space station was most elaborately described in Arthur C. Clarke's 1952 novel Islands in the Sky, which kicked off the celebrated Winston series of science fiction novels for young readers.

But science savvy and training also alerted science fiction to future dangers.  H.G. Wells wrote about (and named) the atomic bomb in 1914, and in the 1930s and 40s, science fiction authors wrote so much about the atomic bomb and atomic energy that John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding magazine who presided over the Golden Age of the pulps (and was trained in physics), was questioned by a US government agent alarmed that pulp fiction writers might be stealing ideas from the still secret Manhattan Project developing the real atomic bomb, rather than using their own knowledge and imaginations.  Tales of atomic warfare horrors became so common even before the first atomic bomb was exploded that Campbell complained he was receiving too many.

Star Trek continued this intermix of art and science in developing the Enterprise and the Star Trek universe.  Few elements were strictly speaking original, but they were chosen and orchestrated with both artistic possibilities and scientific plausibility in mind.  Since Star Trek---or at least since Carl Sagan's novel Contact--the roads of science and science fiction no longer lead as often to the movie or television screen.  Yet the informed vision of Star Trek has not only itself inspired new technologies (and new scientists) of the past 50 years, but formed the basis of its durable storytelling universe.

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