Even his harshest critics have to concede that Trump excels at creating clickbait worthy issues. His Space Force logo, which looks like the Star Trek Starfleet logo, fits the bill. It’s opened countless superficial debates but there is actually more substance underneath that goes to the heart of innovation, space, and the purpose of research.
More than a few people have noticed that the new Space Force logo bears a similar look to Star Trek’s Starfleet logo. Not fair, counter supporters of the new agency, because the original Star Trek logo that Space Force cribbed is itself a knockoff of NASA’s early logo. On their face, they’re right. But the context and history of the similarity deserve an explanation.
To understand the deeper issues, background information is necessary.
October 4, 1957, 7:28 PM marked the start of the modern world. On that day, at that moment, chief Soviet rocket scientist Sergei Korolev and his team watched as a rocket roared upward from its launchpad at site number 1/5 at the 5th Tyuratam range, in Kazahkstan. In the nosecone was a small metal object that emitted a steady beep any radio operator underneath could pick up. They named the small ball, the first human-made satellite, Sputnik, Russian for traveling companion.
As Sputnik fell into orbit, emitting a constant beep, the Soviets were giddy with their accomplishment. To say Americans weren’t as enthusiastic is an understatement: they freaked out.
Americans sat helpless as the satellite traveled far above their heads, it’s electronic chirping less welcome than a baby yelling in a movie theater. Despite an elaborate and expensive series of radar installations to detect and down Soviet bombers, the US could do nothing about Sputnik. No amount of propaganda about American know-how could counter the beeps audible on inexpensive radios.
It didn’t take long for the countless American WWII veterans to get their act together. William Guier and George Weiffenbach of John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory theorized they could track the satellite by measuring the beeps. They requisitioned and received emergency computer time to calculate the trajectory of the satellite. Their work, in reverse — tracking a moving object on earth from stationary satellites — would eventually become the Global Positioning System we know today.
The US government responded by quickly setting up a new military agency, the Advanced Projects Research Agency, or ARPA, for blue-sky research including space. Congress quickly decided the United States would lead the world in research or at least go bankrupt trying.
ARPA was a multi-headed beast with a mandate to keep the US ahead in everything science-related including and especially space. (And, yes, they’d eventually go on to propose and fund the personal computer, graphic user interface, and the internet among other things).
The soldiers and civilians at ARPA got to work, quickly advancing the then struggling Gemini Project. Their goal was to launch not just a satellite (and, of course, missiles) but a man into space. They quickly expanded the scope to build the Saturn series of mega-rockets. On August 15, 1958, ARPA funded SS Nazi Wernher von Braun — whose rockets had rained down indiscriminately terrorizing London towards the end of WWII — to build the Saturn series of rockets.
Americans were initially enthusiastic but the thought that Nazis who’d worked for Hitler not long before would now do the same for them bothered many people. They’d seen the ravages of war firsthand in Europe. Science fiction writers long dreamed of space as a new outpost, somewhere that might be dangerous but where the world could and would work together as one. It might still be us vs. them in space but the us would be the entire globe working as one and the them would be aliens.
They were unenthusiastic about kicking their utopian vision off with the army, especially using the same motives and even people as Hitler and his Nazis. In an era where the concept of too much still existed, this was too much. On April 13, 1959, the responsibility for space exploration was transferred from the military’s ARPA to the then relatively new civilian National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA (itself a revision of an earlier civilian aeronautics agency, NACA).
Realistically, the space program under ARPA was the same as that under NASA. Most of the same people did the same things with the same goals. Countless NASA people were active-duty military on loan to NASA. But the spirit at least was to de-militarize space.
Even if the split was largely symbolic it was an important symbol. ARPA may have had a lousy office in the Pentagon but it was still headquartered in the Pentagon. NASA wasn’t. Even though many of the later ARPA scholarship recipients weren’t much into the army-thing — plenty of anti-war grad students attended school with ARPA funds — the agency was still part of the military. NASA wasn’t.
In the spirit of peaceful space exploration, TV writer Gene Roddenberry approached studio executives with a western in space, “A Wagon Train to the Stars,” he called his show.
Roddenberry envisioned the NASA ideal taken from the sci-fi writers. His show, eventually renamed Star Trek, had Russians, Chinese, Americans, and others all working together on the same starship exploring distant worlds. A Black woman served as a senior officer and the second-in-command was a mixed-race half-Vulcan. The agency they worked for, Starfleet, had a badge that looked like NASA’s, an implicit nod that the sci-fi agency was the same as the real-life one.
The plots of the show were often ridiculous. Costumes were tacky and the special effects were terrible. The Captain remained a good looking macho American who got in a fistfight every episode. Roddenberry’s Star Trek was canceled after just three seasons.
Despite the failings, the core idea that space is a place for peace where we’ve conquered both the laws of physics along with bigotry, prejudice, and greed remained in the public’s imagination. Space was a place for peace, not war, went the civilian NASA ideal.
All was well until the US government did what they often do best, destroying the ideal. The Democratic House and Republican Senate authorized and funded a new branch of the army to militarize space, Space Force.
The desecration of the logo is superficial. However, the underlying damage to the notion that we should work towards a world of merit and equality free from bigotry and even the constraints of money is more important.
The generation that fought WWII said no to militarized space. Their children — who never saw war outside a TV screen thanks to daddy’s doctor’s notes and repeat college exemptions — are fine with the idea.
Yes, they cribbed the NASA nee Star Trek logo. More substantively, Congress sneered at the idea of a utopia in space; worldwide peace through research, invention, innovation, and rational understanding. Sure countries have long experimented with space weapons but they realized it was in bad taste and did so quietly. No more, thanks to a bipartisan hitjob on hope for a better world.
NASA and Star Trek’s utopic vision devolved into a dystopian nightmare.
I spend a lot of time researching, writing, consulting, and advising businesses about innovation. I work with tiny startups to enormous behemoths all over the world. One thing they all have in common — every single one — is they privately express a desire to make the world a better place while also making money. INSEAD’s logo is “Business as a force for good.” Sure, it’s arguably aspirational but at least the spirit is there. No real businessperson gets off on wrecking the world.
I’ve also been talking to the great innovators through time, at least those who are still alive. They gave the world the modern computer, the chips, the windows, the internet, computer graphics, the web and more.
All of the innovators I’ve been speaking with are brilliant. All of them share the ideal that science and innovation will shepherd humankind to a better place.
With all deference to IP lawyers who no-doubt disagree, copying the Star Trek logo isn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. Conversely, the violence Space Force represents to hope for a better world, the death of the utopian vision for younger people, is unforgivable.