Monday, December 9, 2013

The Reluctant Astronaut(s)

The Mercury Seven (1961)
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Star Trek share a long history together. As early as March 15, 1967, Leonard Nimoy was invited to be a guest of honor at the Goddard Memorial Dinner put on by the National Space Club (Shatner had been invited, but was forced to decline due to a movie commitment). The other guests of honor were Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Mercury astronaut John Glenn, and NASA administrator James E. Webb. Over the course of the series, a number of cast and crew members were invited to attend rocket launches and tour NASA facilities.

The roll-out of the space shuttle Enterprise (1976)
Perhaps most famously, after the series was cancelled, a group of Star Trek fans successfully petitioned President Gerald Ford to rename the first shuttle orbiter Enterprise (it had originally been named the Constitution, in honor of the 1976 bicentennial). Around the same time, NASA invited Nichelle Nichols to become a recruiter for the space program, after she criticized the agency for failing to reach out to women and minorities in a speech entitled 'Space, What's In It For Me?' As an astronaut recruiter, Nichols worked to correct this problem, and "her efforts resulted in NASA’s selection of five women, three African American men, and an Asian American."

Among that group was Mae Jemison, who became the first African-American woman in space on board the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992. Jemison later made a cameo appearance on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993, becoming the first real-life astronaut to appear in the franchise.

Mae Jemison on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1993)
Jemison, however, was not the first NASA astronaut to be approached about appearing on the show. Letters in the Gene Roddenberry collection at UCLA reveal that Mercury Astronauts Alan Shepard and Scott Carpenter were both pursued about appearing on Star Trek. The production first tried to get Shepard to appear, as revealed in this June 15, 1966 memo from Gene Roddenberry to Bob Justman:
Our public relations people tell us it is likely that they can get the astronaut Shepard to play some minor role on our show, plus give us some associated publicity, which could be of advantage to STAR TREK. He is for some reason unable to accept pay, but in lieu would like us to film a one-minute spot for his favorite charity. 
So we can give some kind of answer to this, can you prepare an estimate of what a one-minute spot would cost us? Or, probably, a couple of estimates so that we could determine how simple or complex we could agree to, the relative cost of color and black and white, etc.
Perhaps the "public relations people" had overestimated their abilities. For whatever reason, Shepard's appearance didn't make it beyond the idea stage. However, a week later, the production tried again, this time going for NASA astronaut Scott Carpenter. In a July 12, 1966 letter to Art Wilcox, however, Carpenter graciously declined:
You proposed in your letter of June 24, 1966, a very fascinating experience for me. Unfortunately, that experience poses two or three unresolvable conflicts. I wish it were not so. Perhaps at a later date such a thing could be arranged. I must say you honor me almost out of my boots with such an idea. Thank you very much.
Shepard in the credits of Enterprise (2001)
At that point, it seems, the efforts to get a NASA astronaut on the program were ended. However, in an oblique way way, both Carpenter and Shepard ended up on Star Trek. Shepard appears in the opening credits of Enterprise in footage from his preparation for Apollo 14. And although he doesn't appear, Carpenter's voice can be heard in the teaser trailer for Star Trek (2009), which includes his famous words, "Godspeed, John Glenn."

Images courtesy of Trek Core and NASA.

Thanks to Dave Eversole for sending me this image.


The Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection (1964-1969)


  1. Fellow fans from the 1970s might recognize a little mishap Bruce Peterson (the NASA engineer and test pilot pictured with James Doohan in the linked photo) had in 1967. It played weekly in the credits of "The Six Million Dollar Man."

  2. Interestingly, according to The Making of Star Trek The Motion Picture, p. 116:

    "Following completion on of her role in Star Trek—The Motion Picture, Nichelle was contacted by officials of the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., asking her assistance in production of an orientation film to acquaint junior high students nationally with the marvels and history of space. In the film Nichelle again appears as Uhura, in a script based on her original scenario."

    I've had no luck verifying the authenticity of this.

  3. Google Books indicates it is mentioned on pages 224 and 230 of her memoir, Beyond Uhura, although it only gives a partial preview and I don't have the book on hand to read the full text. Assuming it exists, I'm surprised this film hasn't made its way to YouTube. Surely someone out there must have a copy.

  4. Super post. I've been thinking about this very topic my guruish friend. Congratulations on being so consistently interesting. You Rocks !!
    Passive Candidates