The Expedition 45 crew members to the ISS in 2015 rock Star Wars Jedi cosplay.


It is the mid-1980s. I am sitting on the ground in my father’s dwelling workplace in entrance of a small tv. Legs folded, leaning ahead, I am watching Mr. Spock commune with a lumpy rocklike alien.

Spock cries out “Ache! Ache! Ache!” and I ache, too, for Star Trek to be an actual place the place I might stay, work and discover the universe.

I wasn’t the one child hooked on science fiction. I grew to become a author, however a few of them ended up working for NASA, the closest actual factor we have now to the fictional Starfleet. 

Mr. Spock connects with the Horta.

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

NASA’s all in regards to the actuality of area exploration, however its engineers, scientists and astronauts are nonetheless dreamers. They get misplaced in Isaac Asimov books, watch The Expanse and nerd out over Star Wars.

“I’ve at all times beloved science fiction,” says NASA astronomer Amy Mainzer. “It helps you to attempt on concepts and see how they match.”

Oct. 1 marks NASA’s 60th anniversary. The area company started in 1958, the identical 12 months The Blob spooked theater audiences with visions of a lethal alien from the celebs. Over the a long time, Hollywood sci-fi has gotten extra subtle, and NASA has embraced its connection to that tradition as its area exploration triumphs have rivaled what we see on display screen.

A love of science fiction threads via the area company, and it is also a part of NASA’s public outreach. The company has sought out exoplanets that mirror Star Wars planets, despatched scientists to commune with followers at Comedian-Cons and partnered with William Shatner, Capt. Kirk of the unique Star Trek, to promote the Parker Photo voltaic Probe.


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The love runs each methods. In a NASA video honoring Star Trek’s 50th anniversary in 2016, Shatner stated, “It is phenomenal what NASA’s doing with science that’s, while you have a look at it, the equal of science fiction.”

I talked with among the individuals of NASA who hunt for asteroids, examine dwarf planets and really step out into the blackness of area, and collectively we roamed throughout a shared universe of science fiction.

On board the Enterprise

You would possibly acknowledge Mike Fincke from his work within the 2005 finale episode of Star Trek: Enterprise. He is additionally a NASA astronaut who’s spent 381 days in area and made a sequence of spacewalks.

Mike Fincke, middle, performs an engineer on Star Trek: Enterprise.

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

I pump Fincke, 51, for info on his Star Trek expertise, which he describes as surreal. “You are feeling such as you’re on an actual spaceship, however there’s a variety of smoke and mirrors concerned,” he tells me.

On the bridge of the Enterprise, Fincke discovered the dummy buttons amusing. “Aboard the area station, you can not push any random button,” he laughs. Fincke served as a science officer, flight engineer and later commander throughout his ISS stays in 2004 and 2009.

Although Enterprise does not at all times get a variety of love, Fincke has a comfortable spot for the present. “It was a bit extra actual. The common translator did not at all times work, and issues would break,” he says. That is a part of the fact of life in area, from the troubled Apollo 13 flight in 1970 to the leak found on the ISS in August.

Fincke, who lists Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein as favorites, devoured 100 books throughout his ISS visits. “It is a mind-blowing meta expertise to learn science fiction on board the area station,” he says.

Ion propulsion in actual life

When he was a child, NASA’s Marc Rayman, 61, learn an Asimov story referred to as Marooned Off Vesta. It was 1938 when Asimov wrote the story of a broken spaceship trapped in orbit across the asteroid.

Buzz Aldrin on the moon

Learn extra about NASA on its 60th anniversary.


In 2011, NASA’s unmanned Daybreak spacecraft arrived to check Vesta up shut. Rayman, who joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California in 1986, is the director and chief engineer for the Daybreak mission. “That was actually cool to have the ability to ship a spacecraft to this distant world that was the topic of a brief story I had learn after I was nonetheless in junior highschool,” he says.

Daybreak has traveled nice distances since its 2007 launch due to its revolutionary ion propulsion system. The system debuted on NASA’s technology-testing 1998 Deep House 1 mission and was nearly saddled with the acronym “NSTAR.” Due to Star Trek and Star Wars and Rayman’s insistence, it is now referred to as ion propulsion.

Trek followers will keep in mind the 1968 episode Spock’s Mind when the Enterprise encounters a complicated alien race. Mr. Scott admires their spacecraft, saying, “I’ve by no means seen something like her. And ion propulsion at that. They may train us a factor or two.”

Says Rayman, “If you happen to name it an ion propulsion system, each Star Trek fan will no less than have heard the time period. Star Wars followers will know that is what powers the TIE fighters.”

Actual-world ion propulsion may be very completely different from the fictional variations. Daybreak does not have the agility of a TIE fighter, but it surely achieves what Rayman calls “acceleration with persistence.”

Rayman is now overseeing the top days of the Daybreak mission, which is able to wrap up this fall when the spacecraft goes silent in orbit round dwarf planet Ceres. Ceres is now a well-known sci-fi location because of the success of The Expanse books and TV sequence. Rayman loved the three books although the fictional Ceres does not a lot resemble the actual factor.

Asteroid hunter

Earlier than interviewing Amy Mainzer, 44, the principal investigator for NASA’s Neowise asteroid-hunting mission, I take a look at her Twitter web page. I discover her sporting an old-school Star Trek sciences uniform in her profile image and I instantly really feel a way of kinship.

This artist’s illustration of the WISE spacecraft is worthy of a sci-fi present.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Mainzer grew up loving astronomy and science fiction on the similar time. “To me, science fiction has at all times been about thought experiments and letting you see a imaginative and prescient of the longer term and attempting out concepts,” she says. She joined NASA’s JPL in 2003.

She mentions creator Diane Duane, who contributed a dozen Star Trek novels to the franchise. I am blown away as a result of I keep in mind being a child and studying and re-reading Duane’s Vulcan-focused ebook Spock’s World, which charges as my favourite piece of Trek literature. Mainzer calls Spock’s deductive reasoning “a superpower value having.”

I ponder if NASA scientists, brainiacs that they’re, have bother suspending disbelief in terms of science fiction. However all their data does not appear to cease them from having fun with different worlds. “It is arduous to look at stuff with out being a bit essential typically, however a fantastic story will pull you in no matter any technical flaws,” says Mainzer.

Raised on sci-fi

Tracy Drain is a flight techniques engineer with NASA who labored on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter when she joined JPL in 2000. She’s since contributed to the Kepler and Juno missions, and is now targeted on the 2022 Psyche mission to check a metallic asteroid.

Due to her sci-fi-loving mom, Drain grew up watching all the pieces from The Black Gap, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica to precise area shuttle launches.

Star Trek’s William Shatner met NASA’s Tracy Drain throughout a go to to JPL.


“I grew up hoping the way forward for humankind would seem like Star Trek,” she says. “I gravitated towards engineering as a approach to construct and design issues that can nudge our world to look extra just like the worlds in science fiction reveals.”

Drain, 42, has gotten over her one main sci-fi pet peeve, which is Hollywood’s depiction of packed asteroid belts, as made well-known in Star Wars. “That is not how it’s in any respect. They’re far aside,” she says. She now accepts {that a} little bit of Hollywood exaggeration is usually referred to as for to intensify the drama, and she or he’s OK with that.

Nonetheless, she’d wish to see good science make its method into motion pictures and reveals. She acts as a advisor to The Science & Leisure Change, a gaggle that connects Hollywood figures with actual scientists. “Hollywood should not be anticipated to teach the lots,” she says, “however why not throw some good science in there?”

Star Wars vs. Star Trek

There is a nagging query in the back of my thoughts as I am speaking to all these NASA individuals. It is the traditional sci-fi fan dilemma: Star Wars or Star Trek?

It seems my newfound NASA buddies aren’t in a rush to take sides, although I detect a sure bias in the direction of Star Trek. This is not stunning coming from an area company that within the 1970s named an area shuttle “Enterprise.”

Members of the unique Star Trek solid stand in entrance of the area shuttle Enterprise in 1976. Left to proper: James D. Fletcher, NASA administrator; DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy); George Takei (Mr. Sulu); Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura); Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock); Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek’s creator); an unidentified man; and Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov). The bearded fellow behind Takei and Nichols seems to be James Doohan (Mr. Scott).


Rayman comes down extra on the Star Trek facet. As for Star Wars, he says, “I want to have a variety of their gadgetry, however I would not be very keen on the tradition or circumstances during which they stay.”

Drain says, “My knee-jerk response is extra Star Trek at NASA, however that is in all probability simply because it is how I really feel about it.” She says Star Trek made her wish to develop up and do the issues she noticed within the reveals, whereas Star Wars feels extra afloat in a world of fantasy.

Do not fret, Star Wars followers. There’s loads of like to go round. Simply keep in mind when the ISS Expedition 45 crew dressed up as lightsaber-wielding Jedi in 2015.

A want for sci-fi made actual

Requested what science fiction tech they’d most wish to see turn into actual, the solutions skew Star Trek. Transporter, says Mainzer. Holodeck, says Drain, or perhaps a replicator.

Fincke envies his science-fiction heroes and their entry to interstellar journey. “For me, it must be a approach to beat the pace of sunshine so we might go to the celebs,” he says.

I see the child I used to be, the one who performed with the Princess Leia motion determine and devoured the Starfleet Technical Guide, and the individual I’m now, binge-watching The Expanse and sporting my Capt. Kirk uniform, mirrored within the individuals of NASA in the present day.

NASA astronaut Mike Fincke enjoys an apple on the ISS in 2004.


After speaking with these NASA heroes about TIE fighters and Belters and Vulcans, I am left with a sequence of lingering photos in my thoughts. They’re the images of Mike Fincke throughout his time in area. He is floating in microgravity and there is a smile on his face the dimensions of Saturn’s rings.

“It was even higher than I believed it might be,” Fincke says. And out of the blue I am 10 once more, listening to the Star Trek theme music and dreaming of stars crusing previous the home windows at warp pace.

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