In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Star Trek this year, I thought it appropriate to see what we can learn as engineers from this enduring sci-fi franchise. Fiction often precedes real-life innovations, since it is humanity’s desire to create that inherently moves technology forward; much of what was imagined in Star Trek 50 years ago is reality today. The communicators in the show are a prime example: Being able to communicate wirelessly through a handheld device, once the stuff of science fiction, is an integral part of our daily lives in the 21st century.
Star Trek brought us many pioneering ideas that designers have acted upon, and we can glean a few engineering bits of wisdom from this iconic show.
Tip One: Don’t let yourself be a red shirt -- sometimes that happens when someone in sales promises a due date you can’t possibly meet. See my Design News article, ”How to Set A Realistic Delivery Date for Your Project.”
Tip Two: Never stop having fun in your work. I will never forget watching the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode entitled “11001001” (circa 1988). I was so excited about the aliens that were called Bynars, specifically how their brain patterns worked in zeros and ones, as binary numbers do in computing (I was learning to program in assembly at the time), and that their buffers stored data -- good fun and solid science fiction that was based on binary code. Call me a geek, but I thought it was really cool.
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Tip Three: The Star Trek prologue is iconic: “Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Be bold in seeking out new technology and better, more efficient methods. Explore strange new methods. Don’t be afraid to innovate.
Tip Four: You, like Scotty, will often be asked to provide “more power” and to provide engineering miracles to save the day. Learn from Scotty; he had much wisdom to share in how he responded through the years:
“I canna change the laws of physics.” (from Star Trek, The Original Series: The Naked Time). Even when it’s not what your boss or customer wants to hear, you have to tell them the truth.
“Aye, the haggis is in the fire for sure.” (Star Trek, The Original Series: A Taste of Armageddon). Be confident in defending your position. Sometimes you have to stick to your guns despite the consequences.
“Give me one more day, sir. Damage control is easy. Reading Klingon – that’s hard.” (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). Know the scope of the task before committing to a time frame.
“The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.” (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock). Another way to put this is to follow the design principle that is also a great test engineering maxim: KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid (with “Stupid” implying using simple tools that are easy to use, no reference to the engineer intended). Over-engineering a project introduces additional variables that aren’t needed, and the more variables, the more opportunities for things to go wrong.
Of course, we have to include the self-explanatory: “How many times do I have to tell ya, the right tool for the right job.” (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier).
During the Enterprise crew’s first look at the USS Excelsior, Sulu said: “She’s supposed to have transwarp.” Scotty replied: “Aye, and if my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a wagon.” (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock). While Scotty is understandably unimpressed by Sulu’s observation regarding Excelsior’s supposed engineering advancements, you probably want to rephrase a skeptical response in this type of situation to something that is a little more diplomatic.