“It isn’t all over; everything has not been invented; the human adventure is just beginning.” – Gene Roddenberry
Something kind of magical happened this week and we wanted to take a moment to celebrate. One of the entertainment world’s most famous space explorers actually traveled into space. William Shatner, who played Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk, became the oldest person to venture to the final frontier aboard a Blue Origin rocket.
Whatever you may think about the new “Billionaire Space Race”, there is still something cool about reality meeting science fiction and seeing this man who played a space adventurer in the first TV series to provoke a cult following going on his own space adventure as a 90-year-old. For us here at the Optimist Daily, it evokes its own sense of awe.
Shatner in Space!
As we wrote this week, On October 13, 2021 Shatner and a crew of three others traveled in a hydrogen-fueled rocket 65.8 miles up into space, where they enjoyed a few minutes of gravity-free wonder before returning to Earth via a parachute-assisted landing.
In a TODAY interview before the flight, Shatner expressed his anticipated sense of awe: “I’m going to see the vastness of space and the extraordinary miracle of our Earth and how fragile it is compared to the forces at work in the universe — that’s really what I’m looking for.”
Although this is Shatner’s first official trip beyond the atmosphere, his character has been inspiring people from space for decades.
The Ineffable Impact of Star Trek
Star Trek is the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry, a TV writer and producer who created a television franchise infused with his humanist perspective – pitched originally as a big-budget western in space – that created a utopian future where humanity had successfully and nobly dealt with many of the fraught issues that were preoccupying audiences at the time.
The original series ran from 1966 to 1969 at the height of the cold war and original space race, a time when the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism were making headlines, along with civil unrest and fears of another global conflict.
In this context, the techno-optimistic future world envisioned and portrayed in the Star Trek universe gave something special to audiences of the time – not just a cultural critique of the challenges to American society, but an alternative vision of what a better future might look like. No poverty, no division among human nations, the Earth as a member of a Galactic Federation of planets. The inspirational nature of this future human society based on fairness, possibility and thoughtful adventuring captured the imagination of the world and launched the first intense fan following for a television series – the “trekkies” or “trekkers” depending on who you’re talking to.
It’s hard for devoted optimists not to be drawn to a hopeful version of the future that embraces technology as well as diversity, has solved many of the problems that currently trouble human societies and offers an aspirational vision of human interaction based on peace and unity.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Seeing an imagined future that was inclusive and aspired to be blind to the race, gender, or even the species of the potential crew member was also transformative in a way that may be difficult to understand from the vantage point of the 21st century. In 1966 when Star Trek first aired, the bridge crew was unprecedentedly diverse, and captured the hearts and minds of countless children and young people who have watched the enduring reruns ever since.
Roddenberry cast the “All-American” Shatner as the “cowboy” captain, James T. Kirk, but populated the rest of the cast with a diverse crew that included a black woman of African heritage (Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura), an Asian helmsman (George Takei’s Lt. Sulu), a Russian wunderkind (Walter Koenig’s Ensign Chekov), as well as a half-alien uber-logical first officer (Leonard Nimoy’s pathbreaking Mr. Spock).
Whoopi Goldberg, for example, has discussed her excitement at watching Star Trek as a child and seeing Lieutenant Uhura, a Black female crew member. Although the show was not without its representation shortcomings, its themes and wide-reaching fan base marked a significant shift in the culture of television, and has certainly rippled throughout the culture in general.
Star Trek’s extraterrestrial themes of conflict and the thrill of the unknown, as well as racial and gender equality, draw close parallels to social issues on Earth. The show advocates not only for optimism but also for finding clever peaceful solutions to complex problems.
The three years that the original Star Trek first aired is a time that has many echos to today’s headlines – only now the major existential threat preoccupying our minds is the destabilized climate and the after effects of a worldwide pandemic instead of the backdrop of the cold war and nuclear annihilation. Getting reconnected to the hopeful themes embodied in the Star Trek universe (particularly the original series and the Next Generation) is some positive medicine for the mind. It reminds us that humans can rise above the chaos and move into a better future.
The Awe of Perspective
Shatner is already a symbol of adventure and exploration, but his trip into space also ignites a passion for science in a younger generation. Media studies professor Paul Levinson told ABC News, “Space flights like this one with William Shatner definitely brings some wonder, not just to the Baby Boomers who grew up watching Kirk.”
In addition to inspiring those of us who stayed on the ground, Shatner’s intensely emotional expression as he returned to the planet’s surface, may remind us of the importance of a change in perspective. His request to avoid the champagne and to be allowed to revel in the awe he felt at being up at the edge of space may be related to when he sits on his own lifespan.
“It was so moving to me,” Shatner said. “This experience is something unbelievable.” He went on to say, “I hope I never recover from this. I hope I can maintain what I feel now.”
Deana Weibel, an Anthropology and Religion Studies professor who researches the mystical experience in space travel, was struck by Shatner’s unguarded comments – so different than the carefully worded reactions typical for NASA trained astronauts. In a snapshot interview, Dr. Weibel commented, “This is an outpouring of an instant reaction without time passing; it’s really fresh, I’m glad it was recorded because it’s gong to be influential.”
In Shatner’s words, Weibel saw a reverence that is sometimes evoked in those who have the chance to view the Earth from space. Sometimes described as the “overview effect”, Weibel describes this as the profound emotional reaction when seeing our planet suspended in the vast darkness of space. All of humanity, our life-support system all contained in this relatively tiny sphere. It awakens a new sense of unity and a sense of awe.
For those of us who have never had the chance to ride a rocketship to space, Star Trek itself tickles some of that same awe bone. In a 1988 interview describing the true meaning of the universe he sought to create, Gene Roddenberry explained,
“Star Trek speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow — it’s not all going to be over with a big flash and a bomb; that the human race is improving; that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids — human beings built them, because they’re clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.”
Shatner’s trip to space reminds of the enduring optimism in Star Trek. Live long and Prosper.