Air and Space Curator Margaret Weitekamp Explains Why ‘Star Trek’ Matters

With the release of the 12th Star Trek film, curator Margaret Weitekamp explains why the franchise is so influential

Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine in the 2013 ‘Star Trek Into Darkness.’
Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine in the 2013 ‘Star Trek Into Darkness.’ Star Trek

On the eve of the release of the latest feature-film from the “Star Trek” mega-brand, scholar and curator Margaret Weitekamp argues that the fictional series of space exploration helped define and inspire real world parallels. From advancing diversity in NASA to anticipating new technologies, “Star Trek” left its mark on American culture. Weitekamp, the Air and Space Museum’s curator of space science fiction materials, including a 11-foot model of the Enterprise, says, it will continue to do so.

Since the original series aired in the 1960s, “Star Trek” has grown to include five different series, 12 movies and a vibrant fan culture that supports a multi-billion dollar industry.

Many of the people working in the spaceflight industry, says Weitekamp, are also huge fans of the franchise. That includes Mike Gold, chief counsel at Bigelow Aerospace, who is currently working on the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), an inflatable module for the International Space Station. Gold and Weitekamp will be joined by two more Trek fans for a panel Thursday May 16, “Star Trek’s Continuing Relevance,” at the Air and Space Museum.

We spoke with Weitekamp over the phone about her career, why “Star Trek” matters and her own spaceflight ambitions.

How did you turn “Star Trek” into a scholarly pursuit?

I have a Ph.D. in history from Cornell and while there, Cornell has a rather innovative program of writing in the discipline, where for their freshman composition classes, you can create a course about anything you want because the content is not what is graded, it’s the teaching of writing in sociology, or history, or philosophy.

So I created a space history and science fiction class that I taught a few times while at Cornell.

How does “Star Trek” inspire industry?

The original ‘Star Trek’ series, from 1966 to 1969, had a very diverse cast as the command crew of the Starship Enterprise. When NASA was recruiting astronauts in the 1970s, they weren’t getting the diversity of female and minority applicants that they had hoped that they would. So they actually hired Nichelle Nichols, who is the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura, an African American actress who was part of that command crew, to do a public relations campaign in the 1970s with the theme that “there’s space for everyone.” They saw the number of women and people of color applying go up after her  campaign in 1977 and 1978. So there have been some instances of a very direct relationship. And then also just the broader sense of being interested in what’s possible in terms of space flight and thinking about the ways in which who we are gets translated when you go into space.

How close are we to the future “Star Trek” envisions?

Not as close as people would like. The lack of a transporter and the lack of a warp drive has kept humanity a lot closer to home than I think people had hoped we would be being this far into the 21st century.

On the other hand, there are a lot of ways in which, in terms of global communication, people are much farther in ways ‘Star Trek’ didn’t necessarily anticipate.

People had hoped that some day they would be able to walk around with a thin tablet or with a communicator on their belts and, in fact, we now have moved passed flip phones to having a kind of mini-computer in your hands when you’re on your smart phone.

There are some ways in which I think we’re living the dream but the physical transportation of people out between star systems is still hundreds if not thousands of years out.

Would you consider going into space?

If there’s some need to send a historian mother of three into space, I think that would be tremendously exciting.

What do you like about “Star Trek?”

I personally, as a scholar, am really intrigued by the ways that it can be both a driver for social change but also a commentary on the political and social situation at the time. The original ‘Star Trek’ series, for example, had a lot of discussion about racial integration and gender roles and was very self-consciously a social commentator. As someone who is interested in American culture and society as a historian, it’s a really rich source for looking at the ways in which people have engaged with those issues.

And as a fan, what do you like about it?

I am more of a Next Generation fan and was also a kind of closet Trek fan and a ‘Star Wars’ fan. I am always interested in gender roles and ‘Star Trek’ has had some very innovative plot lines where they talked about women’s roles in society. Despite the mini-skirts of the original series, they have done some very innovative gender stuff.

Which is better, “Star Trek” or “Star Wars?”

Actually, I’m very ecumenical on this. I really like both. I grew up more as a ‘Star Wars’ fan but I have really come to like how rich ‘Star Trek’ is in terms of the scholarly analysis and that’s something that’s a lot of fun for me personally and professionally. I’m going to have to come down solidly on the fence of saying I like both.

‘Star Trek’ has more self-consciously, commented on its social and political context…Although the ‘Star War’ universe has all of those six movies kind of working to tell one continual arc of a story, the ‘Star Trek’ universe has really worked to knit together many disparate pieces: TV shows, movies, fan culture, novels, merchandise, into one, what has been called by scholars, megatext.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” will be showing at the Udvar-Hazy Center’s IMAX theater.

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