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Exploring the Space Between Star Trek & Apollo 11


The Summer of 1969 was a tough one for the first generation of Trekkies. On June 3, the final episode of The Original Series aired and the show ended after three years instead of the promised “five year mission.” It would be a little over four years until our beloved crew was back in animated form with The Animated Series and a full decade before we saw them in the flesh (and, in Bones’ case, the beard) in The Motion Picture. Lo, what was someone enamored of interplanetary travel to do during this dark time?!! Oh, I dunno, maybe watch ACTUAL earthlings walk on the moon?

Yes, it was quite a way to soften the blow of the show’s cancellation. Six weeks after Captain Kirk signed off, Commander Neil Armstrong took his small step/giant leap, and, for a brief moment, science fact was as fantastic as science fiction.

Apollo 11 launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969. The lunar module landed on the moon four days later ⁠— July 20, 1969. Ever since that summer day 50 years ago the paths of Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train To The Stars” and NASA have had intersected many times.

If you saw William Shatner’s one man show “Shatner’s World” you know the story of how our favorite Canadian actor was feeling a little glum that summer, what with being unemployed and all. But with Apollo fever in the air, he interacted with one of his neighbor’s young kids who wanted to play “Astronaut” with him. They went in the kitchen, laid chairs down so they could sit horizontally and fiddled with the knobs on the stove as if they were inside a capsule. (Do not try this at home, by the way.) Shatner had an epiphany that, in some small way, if the boy associated him with the historic events happening in orbit, he knew it had all been worth it.

Years later, NASA decided to ditch capsules for a reusable space shuttle. The prototype model was originally going to be called “Constitution,” but Trekkies, accustomed to organizing letter-writing campaigns (it’s how we got a third TOS season in the first place), mobilized. There were enough fans inside the NASA operation to agree that the ship — which would do everything except actually enter space ⁠— should undergo a name change. As such, on July 17, 1976, with Gene Roddenberry and most of the TOS cast present, the Space Shuttle Enterprise was presented to the galaxy.

“Trek” talent continued their association with the space agency. Nichelle Nichols filmed a recruitment video in the late 1970s encouraging women and minorities to apply for positions. James Doohan narrated a documentary about the shuttle program, Leonard Nimoy narrated the IMAX film “Destiny In Space” that incorporated high-resolution imagery shot by NASA, and William Shatner gave the astronauts aboard Space Shuttle Discovery a personalized wake-up call in 2011.

As far as NASA personnel and astronauts in general, you’d have harder luck finding one who wasn’t inspired by “Star Trek” than one who was. Who can forget Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti dressing as Captain Janeway and tweeting “there’s coffee in that nebula” from space?!?!?

Not bad for a television show that was already cancelled before man stepped on the moon.

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