Long before some Los Alamos National Laboratory employees joined the nuclear security enterprise, they were fans of another enterprise: the USS Enterprise, the fictional starship in the Star Trek media franchise.
The original Star Trek series debuted in 1966 and has expanded into movies, multiple television series, video games, novels, and comic books. Star Trek has inspired generations of fans to pursue careers in science and technology, including several self-declared trekkies who’ve ended up at Los Alamos.
“Star Trek is one of the reasons I decided to go back to school for mechanical engineering,” says Joseph Sparto, a mechanical designer in the Lab’s Pit Technologies division. “I really liked how the crew members were always pushing themselves to continue to learn and further technology. That was what really attracted me to study engineering and accept a position at the Lab.”
Michael Linch, who works in operational safety at Los Alamos, saw his first episode of the original series as a first grader and from there, “I was mesmerized,” he says. “Star Trek inspired my interest in math and science.” Growing up, he also drew inspiration from key characters. “Kirk sparked my interest in the military and tactics. Spock encouraged me to solve problems in a logical, methodical manner. Scotty piqued my interest in engineering.”
Star Trek also shaped the career of Los Alamos historian Nicholas Lewis. “Star Trek depicted the value of research and scientific knowledge, and the importance of society concurrently developing the maturity to utilize that knowledge and associated technological advancements wisely,” Lewis explains. “This interest in the social construction of technology is what led me to study the history of computing—one of the most powerful technologies our species has ever created—which is what brought me to Los Alamos to study the Lab’s important role in the development of electronic computing.”
These Lab trekkies also point out the influence of Star Trek on technology. Linch says that as a child, he felt drawn to the high-tech devices in the show. “I often wondered whether fictional things like the transporter and talking computers could one day be real.”
“What is interesting is that in the shows they had devices, like digital tablets, that we have now,” Sparto says. The franchise’s communicators, tricorders, phasers, tablets, and optical visors all now have real-life equivalents. Some of the franchise’s technology, such as a 3D virtual reality holodeck that uses holograms to create an immersive 3D experience, are in development today.
Another groundbreaking characteristic of the Star Trek franchise is its approach to cultural issues, such as diversity. Lewis says this had a lasting impact on him. “I was not of the dominant culture where I grew up, so I felt extremely isolated,” he remembers. Lewis turned to Star Trek for inspiration. “Star Trek provided a positive depiction of the future where our species had evolved out of its infancy to embrace inclusion and diversity, and to eliminate war and poverty, eventually becoming part of a vast interstellar community. Those were powerful messages that gave me hope and helped shape who I am today.”
One thing the Los Alamos trekkies may not know is that the Lab played a part in the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In 1980, The Atom, a Laboratory magazine, reported that Lab employees created the computer animation that appeared on the monitor on the bridge of the USS Enterprise in the movie. Mel Prueitt, one of the employees who created the animations, is quoted as saying the graphics received a “tremendous response” from the public, which “helps create and maintain an interest in science and technology.”
Here’s hoping that interest continues to “live long and prosper” at Los Alamos National Laboratory and beyond. ★