Mirror Universe: Star Trek as an Exemplar of Space-Age Popular Culture

U.S.S. Enterprise filming model hanging in the National Air & Space Museum, Washington, DC, March 1986. Image credit: David S. F. Portree.
(Excerpt from a graduate thesis by David S. F. Portree; submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements for a Master's degree in History, August 1987)


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 was clear that both William Shatner, who played Captain James T. Kirk, and Leonard Nimoy, who played First Officer Spock, wished 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 or the Science Officer's scanner. He noted, however, that the Enterprise would complete the "five-year mission" of Star Trek's opening monologue by the time Shatner and Nimoy moved on. More significant 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, for their part, threatened to continue the program with a new creative team.

Roddenberry ended the impasse in April 1971 by floating a new Star Trek series. 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 series 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 attracted NASA's notice by the beginning of 1971. Soon the fictional space program of Star Trek began to insinuate itself into the real-life space program.

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 lunar landing mission (December 1972), which was given over to lunar surface technology testing and development, 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 short-duration 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 reached 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, Olympus 2 was 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 home 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. Viewers found themselves in a familiar place, but with intriguing changes.

Thelar, it turned out, was an Andorian. According to the Star Trek: Farthest Star series bible, he was the first non-Human formally promoted 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 partially overlapped the original series in time. Endeavour was of the same class as Kirk's Enterprise, differing from it only in detail.

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," which in turn grew from the original Star Trek season one episode "Balance of Terror." Much like "Balance of Terror," "A Knife in the Heart" portrayed a Romulan incursion into Federation space.

The Romulans, it was established, were descended from the crew of a Vulcan cargo ship that had crashed on the bleak planet Zeta Reticuli B V more than 2000 years earlier, in the era before the Vulcans nearly destroyed themselves and embraced logic. Even as they increased their numbers, the proto-Romulans lost their technology. Two hundred years after the crash, Earth and Romulus had roughly equivalent technology. On Earth, the first-century Roman Empire expanded its borders; on Romulus, Sarpa the Great built the first world empire.

Under the world empires, Romulus began to regain its technology, outpacing Earth. In about the Earth year 1700, the Romulans fought their first nuclear war, retarding their development. Nevertheless, in about the Earth year 1900, they managed to launch settlers to Romii, a planet orbiting Zeta Reticuli A. By the Earth year 2100, Romulus and Romii were at war. 

Humans, meanwhile, circumnavigated their planet, developed steam and electrical power and radio, split the atom, established a base on the Moon, fought the Eugenics Wars, settled Mars using spacecraft equipped with hibernation technology, developed fusion power and propulsion (the first fusion-drive planetary expedition, to Saturn, took place in 2018), developed fusion-powered warp drive, unified Earth, and contacted the Vulcans, Tellarites, and Andorians. The Vulcans were technologically more advanced than Humans, the Tellarites roughly equivalent, and the Andorians more primitive (they were experimenting with steam and electricity when Earth came to call).

In 2163, the United Earth starship Pax entered the Zeta Reticuli system. A "wolf-pack" of Romulan vessels immediately attacked her and crippled her warp drive with a lucky shot. Because their sensor technology was primitive, they may have mistaken Pax for an enemy Romii vessel. When the Romulans refused communication and attempted to board, Pax's captain transmitted the ship's datalogs to Starfleet Command and overloaded the twin fusion reactors that powered her warp drive, destroying Pax and most of the Romulan vessels.

The Earth-Romulus War was fought almost entirely within the Zeta Reticuli system. Earth's objective was to learn whether the Romulans constituted a threat to Earth and other inhabited worlds outside their system and to attempt dialog. After the Romulans realized that they were fighting a technologically advanced alien species, their objective became to capture technology. In 2169, for example, they reverse-engineered subspace radio.

Nearby Iota Horologii, the Andorian home system, became Earth's forward base in the war. Andorian technology leapt ahead as Humans offered Andorians work in their fleet yards.

The Earth-Romulus War ended in 2174. Earth destroyed Romulan space defense facilities, leaving them vulnerable to the Romii and forcing them to conclude a humiliating treaty via subspace radio. Earth withdrew and surrounded the Zeta Reticuli system with heavily shielded asteroid bases. The Romii and Romulans continued their war. In 2254, a decade before the events portrayed in "Balance of Terror," the Romulans at last crushed the Romii. They then began to look outward.

In "Balance of Terror," Enterprise destroyed a Romulan vessel sent out by the impulsive Romulan Praetor to test Earth's resolve. The Romulans had in the century since the Earth-Romulus War developed an invisibility cloak and a powerful plasma weapon, but apparently had yet to develop warp drive. Earth, meanwhile, had replaced fusion reactors with matter/anti-matter ones, developed photon torpedoes, and become a founding member of the United Federation of Planets. Zeta Reticuli, once on Earth's frontier, now lay deep within Federation space.

Three years after the events of "Balance of Terror," civil war broke out on Andor as its ruling clans split over continued Federation membership. Some sought to withdraw from the Federation and build an Andorian star empire at the expense of other Federation species.

On the face of it, the anti-Federation clans were archaic in outlook and hopelessly outmatched. They had, however, allied in secret with the Romulans, who had at last built a warp-capable battle fleet.

Thelar was a junior officer on board the Federation starship Lexington, which the Federation Council had dispatched to Andor in an effort to defuse the civil war. Her captain offered to mediate a ceasefire. The Romulan fleet suddenly arrived, however, and Lexington's bridge was destroyed.

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 EnterpriseKongo, and Potemkin drove the Romulans back into the Zeta Reticuli system as they sought to rendezvous and regroup. Following his fleet's defeat, the Praetor was overthrown, creating an opportunity for Federation-Romulan diplomacy. Romulus would eventually join the Federation, though not during the run of Star Trek: Farthest Star.

"A Knife in the Heart" had referred only 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.

Star Trek: Farthest Star was not in general about space battles. 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. 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 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. Theodore Sturgeon returned with a sequel to his original Star Trek episode "Shore Leave." Poul Anderson won a Hugo Award in 1979 for his season six episode "Conquest of Five Worlds." Frederik Pohl contributed the controversial season eight episodes "Doorway" and "Gem."

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. Star Trek fans at first believed he did this because it "looked cool," but then 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 also 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 robots, 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.

More Information

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part One: Shameless Wishful Thinking

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Two: Naming Names


  1. Remember when the Brits tried to convince Landau to leave ST:FS after the first season by offering to hire both him and his wife Barbara Bain for the Andersons' show? Hard to imagine anyone but Robert Culp headlining Space:1999 but it almost happened, or so the rumors say ...

  2. I don't believe those rumors - Landau would never have jumped ship. Thelar was his dream role.


  3. Thing was Gerry Anderson didn't want Landau and Bain for his series as he knew they were going to be trouble! He and his wife safely produced the second series of Space:1999 as it had been rumoured that the guy that drove the original Star Trek into the ground might take over at the insistence of the US money men!

    1. SPACE: 1999 never excited me much, I'm afraid. (Is that OK to say?) Partly it was because of the poor science. Like, knocking the moon out of Earth orbit with a giant explosion in a nuclear waste dump. Sort of killed it for me. But I did like the Eagle spacecraft and the general look of human spacecraft in Anderson's universe. Reminded me of some spacecraft in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Not sure how many Eagle kits I built.


  4. That was a fun article, and I got many of the in-jokes from the early history of Star Trek (although I'm sure there are others I missed). I love that great NASA photo of Roddenberry and the original cast chilling in front of the Space Shuttle Enterprise, decked out in disco-era attire.

    Have you read David Gerrold's own alternate-world take, "The Kennedy Enterprise," where Joseph Kennedy, Sr. stayed active in Hollywood rather than entering government, and in the 1960s you-know-who ends up getting cast as NCC-1701's captain...?


  5. Carl:

    I don't think I've read that! I used the famous picture in one of my posts - http://spaceflighthistory.blogspot.com/2015/07/what-shuttle-should-have-been-nasas.html


  6. Randy Campbell02 July, 2017 00:13

    NOT related to this post :)

    Had issues with my email among other things but I stumbled across this at NTRS:

    Paper from 1963 which describes the considerations for a MEM (Mars Excursion Module) designed for various mission modes which seems pretty standard... However I noted that it directly address a suggested mission "mode" that you did a prior post (on Wired) on using a "Flyby Landing-Excursion Mode/FLEM" but with a twist in that it was a two spacecraft mission with the flyby spacecraft sent in advance of the MEM and the MEM launched on a more 'direct' trajectory directly to a Mars landing.

    Though mostly concerned with the design requirements for a MEM for each of the three described modes I am somewhat amused by the similarities to FLEM, Mars Direct, and current NASA planning :)


  7. David -
    With respect to alternate Apollo programs, I wonder if I could solicit some help trying to find an old North American Aviation document? Thanks
    Greg Gosian

  8. I need to find a weak point in the spacetime continuum so I can force open an Einstein-Rosen bridge long enough to crossover to the alternate universe where this story played out as human history.

    1. Robert:

      This alternate history post is kind of peculiar. I think it was inspired by all the ST:DISCOVERY and THE ORVILLE previews. More support for spaceflight would be reflected in popular culture just as the sort of middling level of support we saw was.



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