|U.S.S. Enterprise filming model hanging in the National Air & Space Museum, Washington, DC, March 1986. Image credit: David S. F. Portree|
No element of popular culture better exemplifies the enthusiasm Americans felt for their space program in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s than the Star Trek phenomenon. The television program, the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry, aired on the NBC network in its original form from September 1966, as the last Gemini flights blasted off, to June 1971, on the eve of the launch of Olympus 1, the first U.S. space station.
The program, set on board a 23rd-century faster-than-light starship called Enterprise, might have continued for many years but for the ambitions of members of its cast. By early 1971 it had become clear that both William Shatner, who played Captain James T. Kirk, and Leonard Nimoy, who played the Vulcan Science Officer and First Officer Spock, sought to build on their fame by tackling new acting challenges. Both would become A-list motion picture stars in the 1970s and 1980s.
For a time, Roddenberry considered continuing Star Trek with a new Captain and First Officer. Many popular actors petitioned him to take over the Captain's chair and the Science Officer's scanner. He noted, however, that the Enterprise would complete the "five-year mission" of its opening monologue by the time Shatner and Nimoy moved on. Of greater significance was his concern that fans would not accept the sudden arrival of a new Captain and First Officer in the familiar setting of the Enterprise.
Over the objections of Paramount Studios and NBC, Roddenberry determined to tie off the original Star Trek series. The studio and the network considered continuing the program with a new creative team until Roddenberry floated a new Star Trek series in April 1971. Set "on the other side of the Federation" on board a new starship, it would star Martin Landau, one of the many supplicants who had approached Roddenberry to step into Shatner's shoes. Paramount agreed with some reservations; NBC, for its part, played coy.
The original Star Trek series, meanwhile, went into syndication, earning big profits for Paramount. Roddenberry, who treated the new Star Trek series as a given, demanded that a share of those profits should be invested in the new Star Trek so that it could "go where no television series - including the original Star Trek - has gone before."
In August 1971, the CBS network showed interest in the new Star Trek, leaving NBC with little choice but to sign on and accept most of Roddenberry's terms. Development of the new series began in October 1971 and continued through 1972 and the first half of 1973.
Star Trek's popularity and its hopeful vision of a human future in space made the series popular with NASA by late 1971. A small model of the starship Enterprise reached Olympus 1 with the Apollo 19 crew, the first to live on board the station (November-December 1971), and returned to Earth with the Apollo 22 crew, the last to live on board (July-November 1972). The model now resides in the Smithsonian.
During the Apollo 25 mission (December 1972), which was given over to lunar surface technology testing and development, Mission Commander Dick Gordon produced a Star Trek communicator from a space suit pocket and asked to be beamed up to the lunar-orbiting Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) spacecraft Enterprise. The communicator, an actual series prop Roddenberry loaned to Gordon, was, unfortunately, accidently left behind on the moon.
The Apollo 29 crew, the second visiting crew to pay call on the long-duration Apollo 27 crew on board the Olympus 2 station, released a small herd of fuzzy stuffed "tribbles," alien animals made famous in the second-season Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles" and the fourth-season episode "More Tribbles, More Troubles." They arrived at the station in the seventh K-class CSM - thus, going by NASA's alphanumeric mission designation system, it was CSM K-7. Space Station K-7 was the setting for "The Trouble with Tribbles."
Roddenberry's new Star Trek, called Star Trek: Farthest Star, launched in September 1973, at a time when NASA had no astronauts in space. After hosting the record-setting 224-day orbital stay of the Apollo 27 crew, the Olympus 2 station had been boosted to a high-altitude storage orbit in July 1973. Olympus 3, the first "permanent" station, was not due to launch until December. The night before the new series premiere, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson joked in his monologue that NASA's astronauts were all staying on Earth so as not to miss the new Star Trek premiere. His headline guest that night was Martin Landau, who revealed that his character was named Thelar.
The next night, the premiere of Star Trek: Farthest Star drew a record audience, with more than a third of American households tuning in. Thelar, it turned out, was an Andorian, the first non-human to captain a starship with a crew made up mostly of humans. His starship, the Endeavour, patrolled a pie-slice region of Federation space between the Federation Central Beacon and the Galactic Core. The series was meant to partially overlap the original series in time (precisely when the overlap begins is the subject of considerable debate in fan circles). Endeavour was different from Kirk's Enterprise only in detail. It, too, was of the Constitution class, with the same basic capabilities as Enterprise.
Blue-skinned, white-haired Captain Thelar had a complex back-story. It grew from the original Star Trek season four episode "A Knife in the Heart." According to the Star Trek: Farthest Star series bible, civil war broke out on Andor as its ruling clans split over continued Federation membership. Some sought to withdraw and build an Andorian star empire at the expense of other Federation species.
On the face of it, the anti-Federation clans were hopelessly out-matched - however, they were secretly allied with the Romulans, who had built a warp-capable battle fleet in secret. They sought to break out of their binary star system, Zeta Reticuli, which had become surrounded by Federation territory shortly after the Earth-Romulus War a century earlier.
Thelar was a junior officer on board the Federation starship Lexington, which Starfleet had dispatched to Iota Horologii, the Andorian home system, in an effort to defuse the civil war. Her captain offered to mediate a ceasefire. The Romulan fleet suddenly appeared, however, and Lexington's bridge was destroyed by a Romulan torpedo.
Thelar became the most senior officer left alive aboard the starship. Standing before the view screen in Lexington's Auxiliary Control Room, he found himself in confrontation with the patriarch of his own anti-Federation, Romulan-allied clan, who was, it turned out, also one of his fathers.
When his patriarch and part-father ordered him to turn Lexington's weapons on the pro-Federation Andorian forces in space and on Andor itself, Thelar declared on an open channel that his allegiance was to something greater than one man, greater than one clan, and, indeed, greater than Andor - his allegiance was to the United Federation of Planets. He then destroyed the patriarch's vessel with a volley of photon torpedoes.
Thelar's decisive act changed the course of the battle. It emboldened the pro-Federation Andorian clans and frightened the Romulan Praetor. In a fit of panic, the latter ordered his flagship to go to warp without notifying his fleet.
A week later, the Federation starships Enterprise, Kongo, and Potemkin drove the Romulans back into the Zeta Reticuli system. Following his fleet's defeat, the Praetor was overthrown, creating an opportunity for Federation-Romulan diplomacy.
"A Knife in the Heart" referred briefly to Lexington's battle at Andor. Spock remarked during a briefing that the starship had been "badly damaged while scattering the Romulan fleet at Iota Horologii," so could not join the fight at Zeta Reticuli. Thelar was not mentioned in the original series episode.
The first episode of Star Trek: Farthest Star was not about space battles. Very few Star Trek: Farthest Star episodes were, as it turned out. The series delved instead into relations between humanoids and truly alien species. Most intelligent species in Endeavour's patrol zone, on the Coreward side of the Federation, were non-humanoids. Portraying these species convincingly became possible through improved special-effects technology and a much more generous budget for special effects than had been available to the original Star Trek production team.
Roddenberry sought to use non-humanoid species in part to point up both Thelar's humanity and his occasionally shocking "otherness." As portrayed by Landau, the Andorian captain became a sympathetic character, but also one who sometimes created difficult social and moral conundrums for his human crew and Roddenberry's audience.
On two occasions, Endeavour encountered Kirk's Enterprise. In the third-season episode "Green Torchlight," the two vessels called simultaneously at Starfleet Headquarters, a giant space station in deep space near the Federation Central Beacon. Members of Endeavour's crew, on shore leave, shared drinks with two original Star Trek regulars - Walter Koenig (Pavel Chekhov) and James Doohan (Montgomery Scott) - then worked with them to track down a mysterious alien presence.
In the fourth-season episode "Aliens," Leonard Nimoy guest-starred as Spock. Nimoy's return to the world of Star Trek made "Aliens" the most popular TV episode in the U.S. in 1978.
Star Trek: Farthest Star featured scripts by many veteran science fiction authors. C. J. Cherryh penned "Destroyer," a second-season show, while Isaac Asimov wrote "Empire and Robots," a fan favorite of the third season. Sealing a personal and professional breach between himself and Roddenberry formed during production of the original Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever," Harlan Ellison returned in season six of the new series with "The Lifebird." That same season, Poul Anderson wrote "Five Worlds to Conquer," which became the winner of the Hugo Award for best short-form drama in 1979.
NASA maintained its link to Star Trek. Recordings of episodes - often with added special greetings from stars of both series - made their way to Olympus 3 as crew recreational cargo throughout the station's "five-year mission" (it actually lasted closer to six years, but few argued the point).
A large collection of Star Trek toys and posters accumulated on board Olympus 3. Not everyone found this pleasing. During a spacewalk, astronaut Stu Collins released eight starship models in succession and filmed them as they drifted away. This delighted Star Trek fans until Collins quipped during an orbital press conference that he had released the models "to cut down on the damned Star Trek clutter" inside the station. He then revealed that he had released a trash bag full of toy tribbles before closing out the spacewalk.
When Collins returned to Earth, he found his office door at NASA Johnson Space Center covered with newspaper clippings reporting angry fan reactions to his "attack" on Star Trek. When he opened the door, he found letters from outraged fans piled almost to the ceiling. The letters on top of the pile, from his astronaut colleagues, contained (mostly) tongue-in-check admonishments.
Star Trek: Farthest Star ran for nine seasons. Its last season overlapped the launch of NASA's first piloted Mars orbiter mission. The crew on board the Mars orbiter Endeavour named the robots they teleoperated on the martian surface for the program's main characters. Of the six, Thelar, painted a distinctive blue, operated the longest. In fact, it remained functional in October 1984, at the end of Endeavour's 500-day stay at Mars, when the crew fired their spacecraft's main engine to begin the six-month flight home to Earth.
Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part One
Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Four: Naming Names