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Welcome to Your Star-Trek Future

I’m not much of a Star Trek fan, but last night I happened across Enterprise and watched the last half of the latest episode.

I wasn’t all that impressed. Change the sets and the actors, and the story, dialogue, and action could have been from any of the various incarnations of the franchise. Which is, in part, what soured me on it way back when — the writers just couldn’t seem to come up with anything really new after about the third season of Next Generation, and so began to recycle themes and situations.

Naturally, this got me thinking about the current state of our national space program.

The result of the creative stagnation of the Star Trek franchise is partly that it does the same things again and again, and partly that the larger story or mythos doesn’t seem to build or evolve over time.

Doing the same thing over and over, for Star Trek, leads to boredom and diminishing ratings, which the guardians of the franchise attempt to repair by spinning off new series. Unfortunately, the new series end up being retreads of the same old tired stories and situations used previously, as quickly becomes obvious to fans who’ve seen it all before. NASA, like Star Trek, has lapsed into an endless loop of retreads and reruns, to the point that even strong advocates of space exploration and development react to the latest NASA “Big Program” announcement with yawns, at best…if not outright contempt. We’ve heard all the empty promises before — there’s nothing new or interesting to keep our attention.

My primary criticism of Star Trek over the years has been it’s almost complete lack of continuity. New discoveries are made in one episode and nowhere to be seen in the next. Important, history-shaping events take place, but have no impact on later episodes. It’s almost as if the characters are condemned to a reverse-Groundhog Day existence, in which time moves forward as normal, but as they awaken to a new episode, all that has happened before has been forgotten. NASA too seems to suffer from this lack of continuity. The agency achieves great things, but fails to build on them. It builds up an incredibly capable and flexible infrastructure, then throws it away when the immediate application wraps up. It develops new technologies, but doesn’t even try to apply them. It starts off down one path with great determination, only to suddenly, one or two budget cycles along, charge off with great fanfare in a different direction — never applying what it learned along the aborted journey, and only grudgingly admitting in some cases that there had been another path at all. Every Big Program seems to emerge from nowhere, and to later sink back into the void at the end of the “episode”, with little or no impact on the overall “storyline” of the agency…which metaphor is just another way to explain the “mule program” phenomenon.

It’s no wonder that the public rarely notices NASA’s activities any more, until some sort of “ratings grabber” event happens, and why even advocates are cynical about the prospects of any new effort. It’s the same story, over and over again.

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