SDCC 2016: NASA Provides Hope for a Star Trek-like Future

I don’t need a panel to tell me that NASA is full of Star Trek geeks. “The Big Bang Theory,” real experiences at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Labs provided numerous opportunities to realize that. SDCC’s second Trek Talk “Star Trek and NASA Boldly Go” brought some of NASA’s finest: astronaut Kjell Lindgren from the NASA Johnson Space Center; astrophysicist Amber Staughn from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Flight System Engineer Bobak Ferdowsi from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Early  Stage Portfolio executive Jay Falker from the Space Technology Mission Directorate, NASA headquarters. The panel was moderated by Robert Picardo who portrayed a holographic doctor on “Star Trek: Voyager.”

Picardo began the panel with his famous quote, “Please state the nature of your medical emergency,” and then introduced a clip of William Shatner by stating, “First a message from the captain.” NASA is mathematical and scientific, but science fiction is the exact opposite and is merely food for the imagination.

Lindgren admitted that before he became an astronaut, he was inspired by a “steady diet of science fiction” and now finds it exciting to talk with kids about working in that environment that he only imagined as a child.

Ferdowsi related that being part of NASA, that what they try to do through the space program makes him reflects upon what makes us human.

Staughn recalled growing up in rural Arkansas, in a small town away from the light pollution of the city. The dark sky was a reality. “‘Star Trek’ presents a different version of the future, a better version of humanity not only in terms of technology but in ourselves.”

Falker was about five or six years old when he was introduced to “Star Trek: The Original Series” and joked that he “almost created a borg.”

Staughn was excited as she spoke about the search for life, asking the audience if they knew about the James Webb Space Telescope. Most people are familiar with the Hubble Space Telescope that was launched into space in April of 1990. Plans are being made to de-orbit that telescope.  Named afterJames E. Webb (1906-1992) who was the second administrator of NASA (1961-1968), JWST is set to launch in October 2018.  Staughn describes the telescope as being “four-stories high from top to bottom.” She believes it will answer “questions about the formation of galaxies.” Before, we weren’t aware of how common planets were and now, with research through the images seen with Hubble, we know of thousands of confirmed exo-planets, but we haven’t been able to study them in detail. JWST will change that. “Of course, what we are looking for is signs of life,” she stated. She believes there is something, somewhere out there.

Yet what kind of life? Ferdowsi notes that “our entire understanding of life comes from one data point”: Earth. He is researching the icy world of Europa for habitability. He believes that it has 2-3 times more water than earth. “I absolutely believe we will find life in our solar system,” he stated, even if it is only a one-celled living organism.

Dressed in a blue astronaut jumpsuit with official-looking patches, Lindgren cautioned, “While these guys are looking out, at the space station, our view is Earth.” He saw the curvature and while he doesn’t know if there is life in other worlds, he does know “that Earth is absolutely unique.” He explained, “Earth is our space station and if we don’t take care of it” we will be in grave trouble.

Picardo thanked him for “mentioning our planet is a survival issue and not a political issue.”

Lindgren continued that “exploration is cooperation.” Scientists and astronauts have been “studying to benefit humanity for over 20 years.” Think of how many people from so many different nations have “created this modern miracle of cooperation.” For him, the “space station has served as a testament to what we can do when we work together for peaceful means.”  From his 141 days in space, he found that “we all got along” in a very “professional manner” and this was “reflective of a future looking like ‘Star Trek.'”

Ferdowsi concurred, commenting that the space program “shows you what is possible when thousands of people work together cohesively” and that, like Star Trek’s Federation is a very powerful notion.

When asked to name their favorite part of the Star Trek legacy, Staughn named “Star Trek: Voyager” (1995-2001) because of the female captain (Kathryn Janeway played by Kate Mulgrew).

Falker was most inspired by “Star Trek: The Original Series.” Ferdowsi named chief engineer Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton’s character in “Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1987-1994). Lindren confessed that “I aspire to be Spock but I am more like Bones.”

Lindren also commented that NASA is the “biggest collection of space nerds” and that “we were inspired by pop culture but pop culture is inspired by the work we do.”

In a year that has seen many famous people die, violence breaking out around the world and a particularly disturbing presidential candidacy season, this panel brought the kind of hope that Star Trek was based on. Unlike the many cinematic portrayal of scientists as independent and often eccentric individuals, in real life, scientific endeavors require the cooperation of men and women from many different races, religions and countries. Isn’t that what Star Trek and its Federation were all about?

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