Star Trek: The Exhibition at the Kennedy Space Center

The traveling exhibit Star Trek: The Exhibition is currently running through this summer at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as part of the Center’s Sci-Fi Summer. Showcasing the world of Star Trek, the Sci-Fi Summer program presents how the science fiction world of Trek helped to influence the development of our technology. It’s a great place to go if you are a Star Trek or science fiction fan not just because of the Trek-themed exhibits and attractions but because it melds that sci-fi aspect to NASA’s real life world. You get to see where we’ve been and how far we have to go.

Star Trek: The Exhibition features a scale model of the Enterprise, and the actual props and costumes used in the Star Trek shows and films. At the KSC, the exhibit is broken up into two different buildings. One where IMAX films are shown (and is currently presenting Transformers: Dark of the Moon in 3D) has a room dedicated to the original Star Trek series, though props and costumes from the Kirk-era films can be seen. The highlight is a well-detailed replica of the original Enterprise bridge complete with dedication plaque, consoles and the captain’s chair that anyone can sit on for golden photo opportunities.

At another building near the tour bus terminal is a larger exhibit room dedicated to Star Trek: The Next Generation,  as well as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. This exhibit displays a mock-up of the Reman Scorpion fighter craft seen in Star Trek: Nemesis and partial recreations of the Enterprise D’s sickbay and engine room. There are models,  numerous props and costumes worn and used by the actors and a Klingon chair that you can sit on (there are also captain chairs from the Enterprise B and D but those are roped off). Additionally one side of the exhibit’s wall has a mural with a detailed timeline of NASA and Trek history. The opposing wall displays the costumes. A nice touch to this exhibit were two actors dressed as Vulcans from the far future who stayed in character and interacted with visitors. The uniforms they wore were the ones worn by 29th century Starfleet officers as seen in the Voyager episode “Relativity.”

The KSC has Trek costumes and factoids peppered throughout the facility with several famous delta shield symbol on the grounds that act as arrows to guide visitors to Trek-related exhibits and attractions. For example one path lead sto the rocket garden where a floor painting shows how large the Enterprise ships are in comparison to the horizontally displayed Saturn 1B rocket. It’s staggering to consider how large the Trek ships are when you walk the length of the rocket. There was so much to see at the KSC that one could easily spend an entire day on the grounds. Continue reading

NASA’s Next Chapter Awaits

The space shuttle Atlantis lifted off today on its final shuttle mission closing a 30-year chapter in NASA’s manned space program. Looking around the news casts obsessed with Casey Anthony, the dismal jobs report, and other headlines it was hard to find substantial mention of Atlantis’ mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

This just underscores the sad state of America’s space program and it seems as if the shuttle fleet is being retired with a whimper. It’s almost as if NASA and the government want to downplay the fact that there are no concrete future plans.

After President Obama all but scuttled NASA’s manned space program, the agency has been left grasping at straws to remain relevant. Meanwhile Russia, China and other nations are pushing on with their space efforts. So why not us? Blame it on cost-cutting politicians, an apathetic public and NASA’s bureaucracy; there are plenty of reasons. But it could be traced to a lack of long-term planning.

Back in the 1960s, President Kennedy proclaimed his famous goal of landing a man on the moon before the decade ended. Then the U.S. was in a very public space race with a very competitive Soviet Union. One added impetus was that the Russians were winning. It fired the public’s imagination and will for America to forge ahead despite setbacks like the Apollo 1 tragedy. Once Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, everyone celebrated and collectively went on the next thing. NASA’s budget was slashed and bit by bit the agency’s ambition withered; goals like sending astronauts to Mars by the 1980s went by the wayside. The most recent setback was with Obama effectively killing the agency’s plans to return to the moon in a few years.

Now with the shuttle fleet retired, current plans are to develop a new successor to the mammoth Saturn rockets, building spacecraft that can leave Earth’s lower orbit and vague plans to reach an asteroid by 2025 and orbit (not land on) Mars in the 2030s. Frankly that is too far away in time to capture the public’s imagination. For all the hand wringing by NASA, the fact is that the technology to send people to Mars and colonize our moon exists today, actually it has existed for years. What kept that from happening was the lack of will from everyone. Politicians didn’t want to invest their capital on projects that paid off way into the future, NASA seemed to be more interested in conducting tests in space that the average Joe didn’t care about, and the public complained about the costs and necessity of the space program. In truth, the budget for the space program is very small compared to other expenses. To do away with it completely won’t cure our financial woes.

NASA needs clear goals that regains the public’s interest, and more importantly the drive to push the envelope. It may take another nation pulling off a genuine feat to light America’s fire again. Perhaps commercial space craft development will do it (the company SpaceX has plans for a test run to the ISS this year). Or maybe the sight of American astronauts piggybacking on Russian space capsules might do something to boost our motivation. For now though, the next chapter in the U.S. manned space program is still on the launch pad.

J.L. Soto

Reasons Behind Alien Invasions

Ever since H.G. Wells’ masterpiece War of the Worlds made its debut, people have always been drawn to the concept of aliens invading our world. Given our history it’s easier to believe that alien visitors won’t be benevolent, which is why Stephen Hawking recently warned about trying to seek out extra-terrestrial civilizations. This fascination continues to this day as seen with TNT’s new cable series Falling Skies and recent films like Skyline, Battle: Los Angeles and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. As we watch or read about would-be world conquerors (and how intrepid humans hatch schemes to repulse the invaders), one thing comes to mind given what we know about space. Why invade us?

Let’s look at some reasons offered in books, films, and other media:

Location, location, location. The aliens’ world is dying and they need new turf to call their own and our world is best able to fit their needs. The most famous example of this was the premise of War of the Worlds. There are many things wrong about this idea. One is that it’s doubtful that our unique biosphere will be compatible with an alien species. Think of Pandora the planet in Avatar, yes it had an oxygen atmosphere but the air was toxic to humans due to the concentration of other elements, not to mention the gravity was different. These kind of problems will be faced by alien conquerors, meaning our planet in the long run isn’t suitable. In fact, at the end of Wells’ book this proves to be the case since Earth’s bacteria kill the invading Martians. The only solution is to terraform the Earth into one resembling the aliens’ habitat. Good examples of that are found in David Gerrold’s War Against the Chtorr books and in War of the Worlds.

A deeper problem arises from a military conquest angle where Earth is prized just to gain territory for an interstellar empire. Space is huge, really huge. It’s pretty hard to believe that in all that space, the aliens can’t find a world much closer to their own to occupy and/or terraform rather than spending resources to come all the way out here. The Martian invaders in Wells’ book are of course an exception to that idea when considering how close they are to us.

Slave Labor. In the current episodes of Falling Skies, Earth’s children are fitted with biomechanical devices and are forced to do manual labor for the aliens. While this premise is terrifying, especially for parents, and is a good motivator for the human heroes, again it’s not very practical. Any alien civilization that can travel such far distances would have a technology advanced enough to not need manual labor. Even today, as robotics and other technology improves, we have less and less need for manual labor. It’s easier to build machines to do our bidding rather than having to be concerned for feeding and caring for a human laborer. That’s one issue facing car makers and other manufacturers today.

Pre-emptive. Think of the rationale behind the Iraq War but applied on a galactic scale. Or better yet remember Klaatu and Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still. An advanced alien culture is aware of our existence, keeps tabs on us to see how we’re advancing socially and technologically. If they conclude that we could become a serious threat once we achieve FTL, they may decide to fight us here instead of there. Luckily, depending on how you look at it, we haven’t advanced enough so far to constitute a cosmic shock and awe campaign.

Our Bling and Other Goodies. Let’s get one thing straightened out, any self-respecting sci-fi fan and science geek knows that all our precious metals and other materials can be easily found in space. That includes water. Yes the water we’ve found on nearby moons is frozen, but melting it isn’t a big deal. Need some H2O? Just mine any nearby comet. Heck aliens would have an easier time building a refinery on Europa and leave us alone. For all we know they may be there already. This fatally shoots down the rationale behind V and Battle: Los Angeles.

Back in May, National Geographic channel aired a special called When Aliens Attack that looked at how a plausible alien invasion would happen. In one segment the reason behind an invasion was discussed and scientists on the show pointed out the above and added that the two thing we have here that no one to date has found in the universe are proteins and chlorophyll. So in other words we’re a food or fuel source for invaders. That kind of goes with the mindset of the aliens seen in Independence Day  (which by the way, celebrates its 15th anniversary this July) who were described as a race of locust-like beings that razed planets for resources and moved on.

What about procreation? Here’s the typical premise, the alien race is dying out and their key to survival is somehow procreating with us or using our DNA to create a hybrid race. This theory is cited by UFO followers to explain cases of alien abductions. In films, this was used by Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Species and  John Carpenter’s The Thing, among others. The problem with this theory is that the idea of procreating with an alien life is impossible. Our planet’s life forms have DNA that is not in any way compatible with extra-terrestrial DNA and vice versa. Sure they may have the technology to overcome this but if they do possess such tech why not apply it much closer to their home instead of traveling thousands of light years to get cow samples? Even if they needed our unique biological makeup, aliens with such advanced technology don’t need to invade us en masse, just take some samples, replicate it and move on.

However, we may have some kind of cultural or biological attribute that may be prized by an alien civilization. The Borg in Star Trek are a good example of this mind set. They set about conquering worlds just to assimilate unique biological and technological attributes that they’ve encountered. There was an issue of Amazing Spider-Man (issues 269-270) where Spider-Man fought the alien Firelord who traveled all the way to Earth just to get some pizza and caused calamity to get it. (Can’t blame him on that account). Then again it would be a lot easier to just negotiate trade with us. It’s easy to imagine that humans would trade a year’s supply of chocolate or complete Beatles collection in exchange for FTL drives.

Predatory Culture. This could be plausible. An advanced race may be ingrained warriors or conquerors whose society is based on predation. They wiped out the game preserves near their world and are looking for easy, new or challenging pickings and that happens to be us. Maybe they’re just bored or have a sadistic streak like kids that get their jollies from terrorizing bugs in the backyard. The Klingons, and the Predators are great examples. Another motivator may be religious like the alien Covenant in the Halo games. There the aliens find humanity to be blasphemous and engage in a holy war against Earth. What could be saving us for the moment from alien predators and fanatics is that some other advanced civilization rose up to counter them before they arrived anywhere near Earth, like the Green Lantern Corps. Another saving grace is our distance. We are kind of out in the boondocks when it comes to galactic location. Is it worth the trouble traveling all the way out here? See the running theme so far?

Sure we complain about how hard it is to travel to the stars but that could be buying us time for when we do have first contact. Perhaps by the time a malevolent race discovers us and sees that we won’t be an easy conquest, they’ll move on. Keep our fingers crossed.

J.L. Soto