In 1961 John F. Kennedy set the nation on the path to the moon and ignited the imagination of the American people. Space adventures were a thing of science-fiction movies with characters like Buck Rogers & Flash Gordon; the only people that claimed to be in space already were the Russians and at the height of the Cold War this frightened us as a nation. However, Kennedy ignited our nation with a collective goal – in less than a decade he not only wanted to have men in space, he wanted to have them on the moon.
Traditionally, our nation is a nation of adventurers and pioneers; we blazed across the great west, heralded Lewis & Clark, & romanticized the cowboys and it was natural that we would do the same thing to space. Gene Roddenberry was just as captivated as the rest of the nation and in 1966 “space, the final frontier” was uttered for the first time and though Kennedy’s speech had been eloquent, nothing summed up our nations desire for space better than the words that started Roddenberry’s show. Thirty-seven words changed the face of science fiction, and how we look at space forever.
In the sixties NASA shot into space, but not as quickly as Roddenberry blazed into the final frontier. Though his original adventure series only lasted for three seasons its appeal was so grand that in 1979 his space adventure would hit the big screen with Star Trek the Motion Picture. The first installment of the franchise dealt directly with NASA and its exploration of space, something the rest of the films would not do; with the first Trek to the big screen Roddenberry brought Kirk and crew to V-ger a powerful extraterrestrial being who turns out to be an accidental by-product of our nations original forays into space. Though this film literally played on the space race that spawned Star Trek it did not manage to capture the imaginations of the nation.
However, Roddenberry managed to squeeze a second film out of Paramount Pictures and The Wrath of Khan managed to do what the original series and the first film could not. It made space as glorious as we’d always imagined it, and brought the excitement back to Star Trek; with the perils of revenge, exploration, friendship and sacrifice Kirk, Spock and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise tapped back into the pioneering spirit that fascinates us about space exploration and continued to push into the great unknown that is not just space but the universe and attempt to explain the unexplainable.
Though each Star Trek film would take the Enterprise to a thematically different place what mattered was that Star Trek embodied our future in space, a blend of “adventure, discovery, intelligence…that assumes a positive future for humanity” [NASA]. Only a handful of brave men and women could go into space on the Apollo missions and the voyages that would come after it but anyone who could get to a theatre could take part in the adventures of Captains Kirk and Picard and could imagine themselves as a space explorer, a member of Star Fleet or a crew member on the Enterprise.
As Star Trek continued to influence the imaginations of the public it managed to influence generation after generation of astronauts as well. The first space shuttle was named Enterprise in honor of Kirk’s Enterprise, Roddenberry's ashes launched aboard the Columbia and most recently Paramount let NASA screen the newest Star Trek for its people in space.
Forty years ago we accomplished one of our nation’s most ambitious goals and landed a man on the moon. Just as the memory of the Apollo 11 astronauts will live on forever in the heart of our nation so will Star Trek because it “touches a fundamental nerve in…Americans, because we're pioneers and explorers...things that are the good parts of our country, and Star Trek captures that in a glorious way and gives us a picture towards the future" [space.com].
As it turned out Kennedy was correct “no single space project in this period [would] be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space”, Kennedy just didn’t know he was talking about Star Trek.