The Real Star of Star Trek

Rick LyonsSeptember 25, 20168 comments

Unless you've been living under a rock recently, you're probably aware that this month is the 50-year anniversary of the original Star Trek show on American television. It's an anniversary worth noting, as did Time and Newsweek magazines with their special editions.


Over the years I've come to realize that a major star of the original Star Trek series wasn't an actor. It was a thing. The starship USS Enterprise! Before I explain my thinking, here's a little background history about the Enterprise.

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In 1966 two models of the starship Enterprise were built for the original television show, a three-foot model and an 11-foot model. The three-foot model, mostly made out of wood, is featured in any early "production shot" photo below.

The photo below shows the 11-foot model of the starship Enterprise. This model was what you saw flying through space toward the camera at the beginning of every Star Trek television episode while listening to Capt. Kirk's "... to boldly go where no man has gone before" narrative.

Due to the overwhelming popularity of Star Trek's television reruns in the early 1970s, five years after the show was cancelled Paramount Studios donated the 11-foot model to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. As shown below, the donated model needed significant restoration. The most recent restoration occurred earlier this year [1]. Reference [2] below is an interesting, and lengthy, video featuring the 11-foot model's most recent restoration.

As an example of the United Starship Enterprise's cultural standing, in 1976 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) christened the first space shuttle "Enterprise" as shown below.

If you look closely at the above photo you'll see people you recognize. A bearded Chief Engineer Scott is standing behind Mr. Sulu. (Check out Mr. Spock's, Dr. McCoy's, and Ensign Chekov's bell-bottom slacks!) Wearing a brown suit, Gene Roddenberry is the guy who created the world of Star Trek.

The first NASA space shuttle was originally planned to be named Constitution. However a letter writing campaign by Star Trek fans to then President Gerald Ford convinced his advisors and him to adopt the name Enterprise [3]. That decision was a good public relations (PR) move for NASA.

The point of my blog here is that the starship Enterprise is a key element of the Star Trek phenomenon. Have a look at the below Star Trek fiction graphic artwork I copied from Reference [4]. As you can see, the common element in all this artwork is the starship.

The image of the starship Enterprise has influenced many people. One of my favorite examples is the following coffee table. Given enough money you too can have this table in your living room [5].

Star Trek's popularity is, of course, international. For example the photo below shows a building in the coastal city of Changle in China’s southeast Fujian province [6]. The building's owner is a true Star Trek fan!

I have one final example showing how the starship Enterprise has become a star in its own right. In October 2013 a group of scientists, and their audience, met at the Royal Astronomical Society in London to discuss the notion of practical interstellar space travel. Primarily they reiterated how chemically-powered rockets are inadequate for long distance space travel "to the stars." The consensus was that nuclear-powered rockets were a potential solution.

In any case, an article in the October 26, 2013 issue of The Economist magazine, titled 'Starship Troupers', reported on the Royal Astronomical Society's meeting. A graphics artist was directed to create an illustration to accompany the magazine article. And what illustration do you suppose the artist created? You guessed it, the starship Enterprise! Forty seven years after the first Star Trek television episode aired here's the magazine article's illustration:

I suggest it's not a NASA space shuttle but rather the starship Enterprise that is the true worldwide cultural icon of space travel.

Recall that every television Star Trek episode began with a video clip of just the Enterprise hurtling through space. All the episodes were “voyages of the starship Enterprise.” Not “The adventures of Capt. Kirk and his crew.” It's not an exaggeration to view the starship Enterprise as a major "star" of the show, for only she can boldly go where no man has gone before!


Although the Star Trek show was cancelled from American television in 1969, television reruns led to an astounding explosion in the popularity of the show in the early 1970s. Attending an engineering college in Ohio at that time, I too became a fan of Star Trek. ("Fan", short for fanatic.)

In 1972 I assembled a plastic model of the Enterprise, shown in the photo below. I spray painted the ship light blue, the front dish antenna silver, and the model's stand black.

This grainy photo was taken on a bench in the Microwaves Lab at my university. (That microwave test equipment sure looks ancient, does it not?)

Anyone familiar with the plastic models available at that time might wonder, What is that toggle switch on the right side of the model's base? Not willing to leave well enough alone, and wanting to simulate the rotating orange engine lights of the television show's Enterprise, I installed small battery-powered electric DC motors and tiny light bulbs in the front of my model's two engines' tubes. The toggle switch activated the motors and bulbs. (I told you I was a Star Trek fan!)

That plastic model construction project turned out to be technically educational for me. Barely visible in the above photo is a black circular knob at the left side of the model's base. That's the knob of a rotating potentiometer I used to control the speed of the model's DC motors. What I learned was that varying the DC voltage to the motors is not the best way to control DC motor speed. Applying the full DC motor voltage with a variable on/off duty cycle works much better.

Regrettably, because I've moved so many times in my adult life, all that remains of my Enterprise model is the front dish antenna.


[1] Margaret Weitekamp, "Enterprise Studio Model Back on Display",

[2] Smithsonian Channel, "Building Star Trek",


[3] Mark Strauss, "Declassified Memos Reveal Debate Over Naming the Shuttle Enterprise",

[4] Star Trek fiction graphical art from

[5] Barry Shields, Enterprise coffee table,

[6] Wall Street Journal, "Chinese Firm’s Headquarters Shaped Like Star Trek’s Enterprise",

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Comment by Rick LyonsSeptember 26, 2016
Hi kenl. If you search the web for "star trek gadgets" you'll see a number of web pages listing Star Trek gadgets that later became real-world devices. What surprises me is that none of those lists discuss CD or DVD disks. If you go to the following web page you'll be astonished to see Capt. Kirk in a kind of library that has no books. Instead, the library has CDs! I'm not joking.

http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=mariette+hartley+star+trek+episode&qpvt=mariette+hartley+star+trek+episode&view=detail&mid=2EE8D683494D826A14162EE8D683494D826A1416&FORM=VRDGAR />
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Comment by fharrisSeptember 25, 2016
Live long and prosper...

nice review

fred harris
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Comment by Rick LyonsSeptember 25, 2016
I'll mention to the readers here that fred's terrific textbook, "Multirate Signal Processing For Communications Systems" is the only DSP book I know of that mentions Star Trek.
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Comment by Rick LyonsSeptember 25, 2016
Hi fred!
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Comment by dcomer_backupSeptember 25, 2016
Rick, you may be interested in this link: http://www.blastr.com/2013-8-5/little-known-sci-fi-fact-how-star-trek-was-saved-lucille-ball. I'm not sure but could the star ship Enterprise never had been know had it now been for Lucy?


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Comment by Rick LyonsSeptember 25, 2016
Hi Dave. I knew NBC requested a second pilot, but I didn't know Lucy may have pressured NBC to do that. If I could talk to Lucy about that I'd say, "Lucy, you've got some 'splainin' to do."
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Comment by dcomer_backupSeptember 25, 2016
My understanding is that Desilu Studios was the stage very beginnings of the concept for Star Trek and they wanted to kill the project (Ricky?) because it was not believable.. As the story goes, Lucy said no and insisted that it continue. How it got to NBC is in the history I suppose. Anyway, could be a convoluted rumor (pun intended) but thought it was worth the mention. Hope you are doing well and the Harley is treating you good :)

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Comment by kenlSeptember 25, 2016
Lockheed Martin has an article on our internal internet page showing 5 emerging technologies within the company that relate to Star Trek. I thought it may be on youtube, but I checked and it's not. Sorry.

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