The Starship Private Enterprise
What Should Star Trek's Success and Space Exploration Have in Common?
MAY 01, 2000 by TIMOTHY SANDEFUR
Timothy Sandefur is a law student at Chapman University in Orange, California.
The television series Star Trek has inspired a whole generation of astronauts and space scientists. Its optimistic vision of humanity’s future in space has been credited with the wide popularity of what has become one of the most successfial entertainment franchises of all time. And social commentators have often found important cultural messages in Star Trek. In fact, libertarians have frequently argued the merits of Star Trek’s vision. While many are attracted to Star Trek’s emphasis on freedom, cooperation, and tolerance, others complain that it presents a bland, bureaucratic universe, where sleek government spaceships, not entrepreneurs, explore the great beyond. In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard even explains to an alien that humans have “outgrown the need for material possessions.”
This subject is more serious than it may seem at first. The privatization of America’s space program is a hot topic today, especially since NASA’s two recent Martian blunders. At a cost of some $14 billion a year, NASA has become a vast bureaucratic machine that has so far almost entirely prohibited competition from private space ventures. A law repealed only in 1998 forbade private companies to return anything—hardware, moon rocks, or passengers—to Earth from space. While the repeal of this law—and Congress’s insistence that NASA consider privatizing the space shuttle—are steps in the right direction, much remains to be done.
NASA could learn from Star Trek: not from its bureaucratic vision, but from the methods that have made the franchise itself so successful.
While many entertainment companies jealously protect their creations through copyright law, Paramount Pictures’ policy toward Star Trek has been somewhat different. Until recently, it has generally kept hands off, encouraging private individuals to write their own stories, start their own clubs—even make their own movies or write episodes for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine. It has spurred the initiative of individual fans, and that is largely the cause of Star Trek’s vast success.
Law professor Dorothy Howell writes in her book Intellectual Properties and the Protection of Fictional Characters, “Fandom has played a major creative role in the evolution of the crew of the Enterprise.” Soon after the original series’ cancellation in 1969, fans began writing their own stories involving the crew members and publishing them in amateur magazines called “fanzines.” The popularity of the fanzines helped to keep Star Trek alive and to bring about the first movie in 1979. David Gerrold, who wrote the popular Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles,” describes fanzines in his book The World of Star Trek:
A fanzine—look it up, it’s in the dictionary—is an amateur magazine . . . . The fan publisher pays for it himself and generally edits it himself, too: all the articles and artwork are voluntary, and generally the fan sells just enough copies to other fans to break even on the whole thing . . . .
Fanzines are probably the most important avenue of communication between fans.
Rather than cracking down on fanzines, Paramount took an almost laissez-faire attitude toward them. (Some fanzines even featured sexually explicit stories about the Enterprise crew. As one fan put it in the recent documentary film Trekkies, “We thought that either Gene [Roddenberry, the show's creator] or the studio would put a stop to it, but the studio never really seemed to care.”) Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager are the only shows in Hollywood that accept unsolicited scripts from fans.
Star Trek’s fans are an often-lampooned bunch, ranging from politicians and professors to obsessive teenagers. One teen-aged fan featured in Trekkies, Gabriel Koemer, showed how his local club had written their own Star Trek-based movie, complete with costumes and spectacular special-effects sequences that Koerner rendered on his home computer. The private Star Trek entrepreneurs were also responsible for the now frequent Star Trek conventions. Paramount Pictures didn’t begin the conventions—but they haven’t discouraged them either. As William Shatner (Captain Kirk) writes, in the 1970s “Star Trek parties began springing up on college campuses, where whole groups of Trek-nuts got together to watch the show and celebrate their fascination with the series.” Now conventions are monthly events, with thousands of participants and millions of dollars in sales.
Starfleet International, a club of about 4,000 Star Trek fans, with a vast Web site and its own newsletter, is another example of Star Trek activity. Like many other clubs, it’s not officially licensed by Paramount. In fact, the studio sponsors only one official fan club—and it’s not all that popular.
I asked one amateur Webmaster about Paramount’s attitude toward fan-created clubs. He described how in 1996 Paramount’s parent company, Viacom, tried to close down fan-created Web sites that competed with its official site. “Fortunately, they came to their senses, made their site free to all, and only went after those Webmasters that had blatantly distributed stolen property on the Web,” he told me. “I asked for permission! Of course, I had to make a few changes to the site (disclaimers on every page and such), but that was a small price to pay to be allowed the freedom to continue using ‘copyrighted’ content . . . . Of course, Paramount has now realized the obvious: fan sites translate into free advertising!”
Other fans complained that Paramount has recently changed its attitude toward Star Trek fans and consequently damaged the franchise. “There have been instances, especially and quite frankly only in recent years, that Paramount has made some mistakes in the treatment of the fan base,” Koerner told me. The studio began to take action not just against Webmasters, but also against some amateur theater productions and makers of prop replicas such as toy phasers. “It was not like this before, when fan replicas were a booming industry at conventions. Convention dealer tables have become less colorful and interesting as a result of Paramount’s cracking down.” In short, Paramount’s recent change in attitude has had the worst results: “Not only has the mainstream audience basically drifted away from Star Trek completely, the fan base began to turn a bit sour with this.”
It would be terrible if Paramount Pictures were to abandon its hands-off attitude toward fans. So far it has yielded a great deal. Radio shows about Star Trek, sea cruises with a Star Trek theme, and even a Las Vegas casino weren’t devised by Paramount executives—but Paramount encouraged private enterprise to expand the popularity of the series until it had millions of fans on every continent. Star Trek the phenomenon is the result of decentralized planning and private decision-making. David Gerrold calls this the “Dandelion Effect” (“Blow on a dandelion. You’ll see what I mean.”): “Organized (you should pardon the expression) fandom touches about five thousand people in the United States. Disorganized fandom reaches a lot more. I make no guesses at the number, but every really intense fan is merely a nucleus at the core of ten or twenty other human beings, whose interest in science fiction is not quite so rabid, but who enjoy the contact with someone whose interest is.”
Lessons for NASA
NASA should learn from the Dandelion Effect. Organizations like the Space Frontier Foundation and ProSpace argue that exploration off the earth can’t come from centralized planning, but only from entrepreneurial missions—from the free market. As the Space Frontier Foundation’s Rick Tumlinson puts it, imagine that at the end of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the government had reserved the west for itself: “A new Waggonautics and Wildernautics Agency is created to manage the frontier . . . . Some 30 years after the original expedition a small but relatively high-tech cabin is reaching completion some hundred miles west of the Mississippi. Serviced by a completely self-sufficient giant Conestoga Shuttle, the cabin faces delay after delay as government priorities shift, and there is doubt as to if it will ever be ready for its first four Wildernauts.”
After 30 years, NASA has become a bloated government program, using tax dollars to subsidize $150 million space shuttle launches, building $100 billion space stations (while private companies could do it for $70 mil lion), and employing thousands of bureaucrats to do things not even slightly space-related—such as the 200- member office of the Inspector General, which costs $20 million per year to (ironically enough) prevent wasteful spending. NASA administrator Daniel Goldin recently embraced the idea of privatizing space exploration, saying that “As good as it is that you all have space in your hearts, it will only work and last if you also have money in your pockets. It is a business, and we must treat it like one in order to succeed.” But NASA also recently prohibited advertising on the surfaces of the space station. Advertising, of course, could bring in much-needed revenue. Pizza Hut recently paid the Russians over $1 million to paint their logo on a rocket.
Privatizing space is becoming a fashionable idea. Although some people believe that private industry can’t finance the pure research of space exploration, the SETI program, which uses radio telescopes to listen constantly for signs of alien life, has been privately filmed since 1994, and boasts only 15 percent overhead costs—far below NASA’s. More abstract, “nonproductive,” “pure research” can hardly be imagined! A group called the X-Prize Foundation is offering $10 million for the first privately built three-man rocket, and the 1988 ban on privately built re-entry vehicles has been lifted. In December, Space-hab Inc. announced plans for a privately built, privately owned module to be part of the space station. Appropriately enough, it’s called “Enterprise.”
Much remains to be done. Star Trek’s vision of futuristic bureaucracy is certainly unrealistic, as Star Trek’s own success testifies: the franchise has succeeded through decentralized marketing, not central planning. So can space exploration.
- Dorothy J. Howell, Intellectual Properties and the Protection of Fictional Characters (New York: Quorum Books, 1990), p. 23.
- David Gerrold, The Worm of Star Trek, rev. ed. (New York: Bluejay Books, 1984), pp. 92-93.
- Trekkies (Paramount Pictures Corp., 1999).
- William Shatner, Star Trek Movie Memories (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 21.
- Stephen Nispel, Webmaster, uss-argis.com, communication with the author, December 17, 1999.
- Gabriel Koerner, letter to author, December 17, 1999.
- Gerrold, p. 93.
- Remarks at Eighth Annual Space Frontier Foundation Conference, September 24, 1999, http://www.space-frontier.org/MEDIA_ROOM/OtherVoices/1999/19990924-goldin.html.