I am one of the few regular I-Connect007 contributors who is old and privileged enough to have watched the original Star Trek series in 1966. Contemplating this has stirred up memories of my childhood and early interest in science. I spent my early years with my father, an airplane enthusiast and aerospace engineer with Lockheed Martin who worked on the F-104 flight instrumentation, and who took his family out to see flight demonstrations at Edwards Air Force Base where he worked.
You can say I got hooked early on space travel. I remember looking up from the playground during recesses as the nation took its first steps into the space age and manned space flight. The X-planes routinely shattered the sound barrier and disappeared into the sky above in Lancaster, California, where my family lived. I was one of those pesky kids with too many questions, bothering the neighborhood menfolk with my questions. My targets were many and diverse: engineers like my dad, a couple of test pilots, and even an FBI agent for good measure. The passion for flight, especially rocketry, entered my veins early.
Soon came actual space flight and it seemed like a fantasy. First was Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union, followed by Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Space was very risky business and the engineers at NASA and elsewhere were making it up “on the fly,” so to speak. Following a brief but harrowing brush with a possible nuclear apocalypse during the Cuba Missile Crisis, the nation recaptured its breath and its progress in space travel continued.
At that time, my father was working for Lockheed on the RM-81 Agena Target Vehicle, also known as the Gemini-Agena Target Vehicle, a spacecraft without crew used by NASA during its Gemini program to develop and practice orbital space rendezvous and docking. Later, my father also worked on the Space Shuttle’s engines at Rocketdyne and it afforded me a 1976 visit to my folks in Canoga Park. We visited the assembly building in Palmdale, California, with my father where the first shuttle, the Enterprise, was being finished and the Columbia was in progress. (Members of the Star Trek cast had been there a few months earlier to see the Enterprise).
However, turning back a decade to 1966 to when I was in high school in Santa Clara Valley, the area was known as “Valley of the Heart’s Delight” and not yet "Silicon Valley." That was the year Star Trek was first broadcast and I was joining my friends in building homemade rockets. This included making the engines and our own rocket fuels, which I cooked on the family stove and which cost my dear mother one of her favorite pans when I decided the easiest way to clean the residue from it was to burn it out (bad idea).
My favorite collaborator friend and I used to watch the new series on his family's color TV as he had control of the TV for that hour every week and I didn’t. It was a departure from the normal fare and the creativity of the writers was showcased weekly. We marveled at the technical wizardry that would be available in 200 years hence in the year 2265. As it turned out, a number of those futuristic devices made appearances well before that date. Perhaps the most notable was the Motorola flip phone which was reportedly modeled after the Star Trek “communicator” design. I did not know then that I would one day be making flex circuits for prototype products that would be mimicking what was shown on the screen. The tricorder was another device that has modern parallels such as ultrasound imaging—another technology facilitated by flexible circuits—which sends and receives data by means of a piezo transducer head. Other devices with Star Trek-like technology I helped build circuits for in the mid-1980s included the plasma opening switch for the Particle Beam Fusion Accelerator (PBFA) fusion power investigations at Sandia National Labs, and elements of early LED displays that were the precursors of today’s flat-screen TVs—also a Star Trek technology. The artificial intelligence of voice-responsive computers (think Siri and Alexa) was once a pipe dream technology that now manifests itself, as well as voice recognition and translation.
Circling back in time to Boeing in the late 1970s, our manufacturing technology group would be occasionally tapped to create odd interconnection structures the purpose of which was both unknown and unknowable at the time, though we (or at least I) did have some fun speculating. It was an exhilarating time when we, too, were inventing processes on the fly.
In summary, we owe a debt of gratitude to all the dreamers of new possibilities past, present, and future. Science fiction writers such as those who wrote for Star Trek, but also their predecessors such as Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, and many others may not have had the technical skills to realize their visions, but they have inspired generations to pursue those visions. Nineteenth century English poet Robert Browning wrote, “Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?”
This column originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine.