Sometimes people ask me "Pascal, since you are not religious, where you do get your sense of morality ?". I often answer "Well, I have seen Star Trek, what else do we need ?".
The Speed of Light, and why it matters
The Milky Way, our own galaxy, has between 200 and 400 billions stars. She is a flat round disk whose diameter is 100,000 light years. This means that a ship travelling at the speed of light would take 100,000 years to move from one edge to the opposite one. Ok, you might not want to go that far, maybe you want to go the the nearest star. The nearest star to the Sun is Alpha Centauri which is located 4.37 light years away from it. This means that even if we moved at the speed of light it would take us more than 4 years to go there (and as much time to come back).
But then, why do I keep mentioning the speed of light ? Could not we go faster ? Well technically no, you can't. You should know that if you had paid attention to physics classes in high school. We know since the beginning of the 20th century that the maximum speed of matter in space is the speed of light, about 300,000 kilometers per seconds (actually, 299,792.458 km/s; I know the exact number by heart since I was a little boy, but only because already then I was a raging geek).
Given how big space is, and even given how big the milky way is (you can think of the Milky Way as your town, like London, or Paris), any biological species who has acquired enough knowledge and technology as to want to start exploring their little part of the galaxy (just like you as a kid when you were playing in, exploring, the few streets around your house), pretty much needs to find a way to travel faster than the speed of light.
So now, how this could be, given that I have just said that it is impossible ? Well, to understand how, you need to do a little bit of mathematics, or maybe you need to think like a fish. If I tell a fish that the speed of anything moving within water is limited by the laws of physics, one possibility for them would be to be knowledgeable enough as to know about the air, and then to build something able to move fast in the air, hoping that the speed limit in the air would be bigger than the speed limit in the water. A fish willing to go very far away very fast (faster than what would be possible by travelling within water alone), could build a device filled with water, able to move both under the surface and above the surface. They would start their journey within water, would then "jump" in the air, fly very fast, and arrived near destination would "jump" back into water.
(The equivalent operation for beings living in our universe would be to start the journey in space, then jump to hyperspace -- mostly a mathematical construct that our three dimensional universe could be embedded in --, and arrived near destination jump back to space.)
Warp Drive and the First Contact
In the Star Trek universe, the technology which allows us to move faster than the speed of light is called a Warp Drive.
I do not know whether warp drives, and more generally faster than light travel, will be possible in the future. It could be that it is actually an impossibility in the universe in which we live. If this cannot be done, there is at least another option we could use, a special kind of solution of the General Relativity framework called wormholes, which do not require to break the speed of light but do require that certain mathematical transformations of the geometry of our space time fabric itself be possible. All I can say is that if none of those options can ever be used, then humanity will always be limited to the solar system and, with a little bit of terraforming technology, nearby systems. This would be like being told that you will ever only be able to remain in your home or go to your across-the-street neighbour house. Nothing else. Ever. Ever ! Pretty boring, so let us hope that our bright mathematicians and physicists will figure out something at some point.
By the way, if the universe doesn't allow faster than light travel, then those extraterrestrials I was referring to earlier would have the same limitations (remember that those limitations are not due to one's level of scientific knowledge, but to the nature of reality itself). We would probably never be able to encounter them. Unless of course if by accident they happen to have evolved in a nearby stelar system, but that is as unlikely as discovering that the woman of your life is the daughter of your childhood neighbours (I mean unless you are in one of those retarded countries where they arrange marriages -- but then you are equality unlikely to call her "woman of your life").
In the Star Trek story line, later this century, as the Earth was recovering from the 3rd world war, a scientist called Zefram Cochrane discovered the 'space warp' and made the first warp jump within the solar system, before coming back to Earth. Soon after, an alien space ship approached Earth and landed near the ship of Zefram Cochrane. From far away this civilization had detected that a warp jump (a technology that they already possessed) had occurred in the solar system and wanted to meet the human who made it. This species of aliens is called the Vulcans and this first contact between the humans and another species is the beginning of the Start Trek story line.
The Federation of Planets
I am not going to enter into the details of that did happen during the first one hundred years after the first contact. It's a very fascinating story with very important and defining moments, notably the moment when Vulcans decided that they would not carry on cooperation with the humans unless they (humans) agreed on a unified representative body (conflicts between the leading countries of Earth had made the relationship with the Vulcans difficult). This lead to the unification of all of Earth countries under a single banner. This unification was made particularly possible due to the fact that early contacts with the Vulcans had given to Earth ways to overcome many problems that humans had to endure for a long time: energy dependance, hunger, deceases, lack of education, etc. At the time humanity created a single unified government, the condition of humans was the best (and by a large margin) it had been ever since we became humans, and even the notion of government had made a leap forwards and the unified government was nothing like the ones of the past.
The next move for the small collection of species and planets which had been in contact since the beginning of our story, was the creation of a cross planet, cross species, unified entity called the United Federation of Planets. It is of interest that the President of the Federation (short for United Federation of Planet) has his office in Paris, regardless of which species he belongs to. The Federation is founded under a document known as the Charter of the United Federation of Planets, which was written in 2161, thereby marking the birth of the Federation.
Starfleet was fonded before the Federation itself was born (but afterwards became a body of the Federation). Its headquarters are at San-Francisco (Earth). Starfleet looks like a military organisation, with ranks between members, denominations and practices reminisent of the old military, but its mandate is to be the exploratory body of the Federation. Where exploration obviously happens within the Milky Way. Startfleet ships are used to survey and study parts of the galaxy outside Federation space, to patrol within Federation space or to bring assistance to Federation member planets or citizens in need. The ships have offensive capabilities and sometimes engage in exchange of fire with outsiders who seek war (or just trouble) with the Federation.
Within Federation space, there are primitive species who do not know about the Federation. They are, for instance, stone age level but intelligent, biological species on planets technically within Federation space. The rule here is very clear. Those species should not, and ever, know about the Federation before they reach a sufficiently advanced technological level. This level is defined as having acquired warp drive technology. This rule is known as the Prime Directive and his actually the first ever command given to Starfleet personal. (The interesting reasons behind the existence of the Prime Directive are beyond the scope of this introduction.)
The Enterprise ship and her crew
One of the ships within the Starfleet inventory is the Enterprise. There are actually several ships Enterprise along the Start Trek story line, sometimes built to replace decommissioned or destroyed previous ships with that name. The official way to refer to a ship is its code and the first Enterprise ship of interest for us here is the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 ("NCC" refer to a civilian ship registered in the United States), a Constitution class ship owned by Starfleet and which was built in 2258, about 200 years after the first contact and 100 years after the creation of the Federation.
In the "altered reality timeline" (J.J. Abrams's movies), she was first commanded by Captain Christopher Pike, and then given to James T. Kirk.
As far as the original series and alternate reality timelines are involved, the command bridge crew of the Enterprise is made of James Kirk (human, Captain), Spock (half-human, half vulcan, but raised vulcan, Science Officer, First Officer), Uhura (human, communications officer), McCoy "Bones" (human, Starfleet surgeon), Scott (human, Chief Engineer), Sulu (human, essentially pilot of the enterprise), Chekov (human, co-pilot, weapon systems).
One will notice that despite having non humans in other positions on the command bridge of the Enterprise, we will have to wait Star Trek Second Generation to see significantly more alien races in various key positions. This actually correlates with an expansion of the Federation in terms of species and planets.
- In the real world, the first American Space shuttle was called Enterprise (after a petition from fans of the TV show).
- The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) was the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (and the eighth United States naval vessel to bear the name).
- The VSS Enterprise N339SS, is the first of five commercial suborbital spacecraft being constructed for Virgin Galactic.
What Star Trek means to me
I have never actually been a true fan of the Star Trek TV shows (The Original Series, The Next Generation and the following series), actually I haven't had that much of an opportunity to watch them. This said, I am a very big admirer of Jean-Luc Picard, the Captain of the Enterprise during the Next Generation series, who is to me one of the finest human who've ever lived (funny to say given that he is a character of a fictional story happening in the future).
When it comes to origin influences, I have never been into Star Wars, if not for a natural and very strong interest towards the Jedi Order, which is the only religion I could ever be a member of (actually, technically, during the last UK census, I registered as Jedi). The true influences and driving forces of my personality have to be looked into Iain M. Banks' Cultures series, which I truly define as "home" (the only universe I have ever felt as true home). This said, the Culture only defines me as person, not as human, not as a member of the human species. The source of my unconditional altruism, the source of my humanity, the values and ideals I defend, represent and fight for, are the ideals of the Federation of Planet, everything that went into its Charter, and more generally the beliefs held by Federation citizens about their own destiny.
Star Trek has been very influential as a meme generator who shaped the American collective consciousness during the 60' and 70'. It was the first time on TV to see a white guy kissing a black woman, the first time for a woman to be officer and even featuring some black women officers. But more importantly Star Trek was a perfect example of what happens when humans address the questions of ethics, morals and of the human condition, through logic and reason. It was the first time (for me) that it became clear that most of the reasons religions existed for, all the problems religions had been created to address, could be addressed with much more superior results through a honest questioning of humanity on its journey towards the stars, but I should rather say, its journey towards meeting other species, who often, somehow, struggled with similar questions. So many very important philosophical questions which had not been addressed by the existing religions (or addressed very badly), had a sudden light put on them through the (mis)adventures of the Enterprise's crew.
Star Trek taught me what being human is (actually, truth to be told, Banks' State of the Art novel did that way better). It means exploring and never stop doing so, seeking to rethink what we already knew, what we had already taken for granted, not being afraid of looking closely at something different and say "this is going to become a new part of me" (because I want to be richer). That there isn't ever a final correct answer to anything, above all when we think about us (a completely different approach than what religions had taken), and that the constant questioning is what makes us who we are. All this without ever becoming mystical, illogical, or unscientific.
The fact that some of the deepest philosophical questions that mankind has had for ever, that have always defined us as a thinking species, has been addressed so gorgeously by a science fiction show (in ways that organised, deity based, religions could never achieve), was truly amazing, and stratospherically inspiring. Star Trek took the position, and showed, that there isn't a single problem faced by mankind that, with time, cannot be solved by ourselves if we put our head to it, and all this without the need for magic, dogma, deities, God or just plain craziness.
The more one watches Star Trek and try and understand it, the more they realise that humans are never happier than when they explore, when they look for new answers, are never more human, never stronger, never more beautiful than when they believe in each other. An "other" who often will actually be a non human. The Federation Constitution grants equal rights and equal protection to all sentients being within the Federation, and it is a defining experience to realise how close you feel to another being from another planet, which has had a completely different social and cultural path than yours, but eventually join you defending the same ideals.
... and defending these rights, those ideals, is the greatest honour a human can have, before the time comes to die and re-become star dust.