Fifty years ago, millions of Americans were glued to their TV sets for what would be a transformative glimpse into the future: The original “Star Trek” series debuted on NBC Sept. 8, 1966. In honor of the show, which led to six more series and 13 movies, the Smithsonian is celebrating science fiction becoming science fact.
"Space, the final frontier," and “the Enterprise” are two of the best known elements of our television history. Now they're attracting crowds at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.
In 1966, if you wanted to have a spaceship in your TV show or movie, you had to physically build one and film it. The 11-foot long studio model of the USS Enterprise is the centerpiece of the Smithsonian's three-day celebration of the original series. The museum got the model in 1974, five years after NBC canceled the show. For a new permanent exhibit, it's been refurbished and rewired.
"I think it's an important part of connecting the popular culture enthusiasm around space flight to the actual artifacts of space flight," Smithsonian space history custodian Margaret Weitekamp said.
The museum is screening the first episode, "The Man Trap," Thursday for a capacity crowd with a discussion to follow.
Friday night will feature a Smithsonian documentary called "Building Star Trek" and another film by the son the late Leonard Nimoy called "For the Love of Spock."
Despite the jokes non-Trekkies make about the TV franchise, “Star Trek” made an undeniable mark on many parts of our history.
"’Star Trek’ is an optimistic view of the future," local attorney Charles Hildebrandt said.
He is part of a group working to build the Museum of Science Fiction in the D.C. area.
Scenes, like an interracial kiss in 1968, were “Star Trek's” bold and covert way of helping Americans face their demons, Hildebrandt said.
"Allowed them to talk about and discuss and confront the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, all these issues that most other entertainment can't even discuss," he said.
"Nichelle Nichols, who is the African-American actress who played Lt. Uhura in the original series, was actually recruited by NASA to recruit astronaut candidates when they wanted more women, more African-Americans, more Asian-Americans," Weitekamp said.
“Star Trek” also inspired things we now see in the real world. What Capt. Kirk called a communicator then, Motorola called the first flip phone in 1996 and revolutionized how we communicate.
"There are really a lot of things from automatic doors that you walk through at the grocery store to the iPad that you can look up your information on that really have some connections to ‘Star Trek,’" Weitekamp said.
Syfy, an NBC Universal channel, is airing three “Star Trek” movies Thursday evening.