by Michael Brown, staff writer
On September 8, 1966, NBC launched the first episode of a new science-fiction series. This series, called Star Trek, would be seen by viewers across the country, causing wide-eyed wonder at some of the technology that creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future would bring us. Now, in 2014, 48 years later, some of that far-fetched tech is actually being used, or at least in development. In honor of the anniversary of the airing of the first Star Trek episode, we present some of that technology. And while it’s true that we still don’t have transporter technology, or have figured out warp drive, some of what we do have may surprise you.
1) Communicators: Anytime Captain Kirk and his shore party left the Enterprise, their life-lines were their communicators: handheld, flip-open units that allowed the crew to talk back and forth, either to each other or the ship. They always worked perfectly as long as there was no real emergency in the offing, but wee often jammed of plagued with static in the middle of a crisis situation. Now, 48 years later, we’re all carrying communicators. We just call them cell phones. And the still have a habit of working perfectly in non-critical situations. In reality, the push-to-talk models made by Nextel in the ’90s were the closest that cell phones had gotten to communicators. The flip phones just gave them the look. But how many of us hung onto that flip phone for as long as we could because it resembled a communicator? [Editor’s note: I know at least one college student who stubbornly holds onto a flip phone to the present day. Perhaps this is the real reason?]
2) Transparent Aluminum: Transparent Aluminum?! Are you serious? We now have that thin, plexiglass-like stuff that’s impervious to just about anything? That same transparent aluminum that Scotty introduced in Star Trek IV to house the humpback whales? Yep. Sort of. While transparent aluminum sounds ridiculous, there is such a thing called transparent aluminum armor, or aluminum oxynitride, (ALON) as it’s more commonly known. ALON is a ceramic-like powder that turns to a glass-like crystalline form after it’s superheated. Once in its crystalline form, this stuff can stop a round from an anti-aircraft gun, and it’s half as heavy and thick as bullet-resistant glass. The Air Force has tested it to use in their aircraft canopies. How awesome is that?!
3) Hypospray: You get sick on the Enterprise, you head down to Dr. McCoy’s sickbay. You lie down on a bed and he injects you with something to make you feel better. But wait! There’s no needle! Just a puff of air and you’re as good as new. I think as a kid, this was the thing I wanted to see above all others. A needle-less shot. Called a hypospray, it would deliver the antidote du jour deep underneath the skin with high air pressure. The real-world application is called a jet injector, and we’ve actually had them long before Star Trek. They’re mostly used in mass vaccinations and look an awful lot like automotive paint guns.
4) Tractor Beams: When astronauts used to fly up in a space shuttle and fix the International Space Station, or repair the Hubble telescope, they’d have to get out of the shuttle and perform a terrifying and problematic spacewalk to fix the thing. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to bring the broken object to you, like the Enterprise and other spacecraft could do? We sort of can. The best we’re able to do right now is a device called optical tweezers. Optical tweezers are small, focused lasers that capture and trap microscopic particles. Scientists use them to trap and remove bacteria and cells, mostly in the study of DNA. And while it’s not strong enough to pull in the Hubble to fix a broken lens, you have to start somewhere.
5) Phasers: Along with their communicators, the Enterprise crew relied on their phasers, sidearms that discharged an energy blast instead of bullets. More often than not, Captain Kirk would order them set on stun, so as not to kill the fiend being shot. Modern day tasers are the closest thing we have to phaser technology right this minute, but a company called Applied Energetic is developing Laser Induced Plasma Energy technology that is said to transmit high voltage bursts of energy to a single source. Stun your target, limit collateral damage. A real phaser could soon be a reality.
6) Telepresence: In 1966, the very idea of being able to interact with someone across the void of space was insane. But telepresence is more than mere video conferencing. It’s being in the room when you’re not in the room, and this is the one thing we have created that surpasses Trek tech. In 2008, AT&T and Cisco created the industry’s first in-depth telepresence experience. Users in Boardroom A, for example, will see the people and surroundings, and even the ambient light is mimicked, in Boardroom B. Crazy.
7) Tricorders: Spock would always carry one of these instruments over his shoulder when surveying a planet. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, tricorders got a little smaller. And there was always one for engineering, medical, or science. NASA has developed something similar called a LOCAD, a handheld device that detects microorganisms in the air onboard the International Space Station. Beyond that, two handheld medical devices are being developed to help doctors examine blood flow, and check for cancer, diabetes, or bacterial infection.
And more things are being developed every day. The pieces are even there for universal translators, with voice recognition. All we need is a smarter computer. Gene Roddenberry’s — and Star Trek‘s — future was the betterment of the human condition. Through Gene Roddenberry’s imagination, and the vehicle that carried it, that world is happening. 48 years ago our mothers and fathers scoffed at cell phones. Given another 48, what kind of Star Trek magic will scientists give us to wonder over?
Michael Brown is a comics nerd and a father who lives in small town Tennessee. When he’s not making his players mad in his “Shadowrun” RPG or experimenting with new and inventive uses of duct tape on his children, you can find him checking out the latest comics and movies for SCIFI.radio!