The race for space – and especially those early, heady days after the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite into orbit – were exciting times for humanity, with the advances coming fast and furious. Laika, a stray dog found wandering the streets of Moscow, was launched into outer space (she didn't make it). Not content to stand idly by, the United States had its own share of firsts with a solar probe and communications, weather and navigation satellites.
But all of those accomplishments paled in comparison to manned space flight. With every launch, Americans were adjusting the rabbit-ear antennas on television sets and adding "T minus" to their vocabulary as the clock counted down to blastoff.
Children, especially, caught astronaut fever. They wore astronaut pajamas, consumed Space Food Sticks and Tang®, and spent hours watching The Jetsons, I Dream of Jeannie and Star Trek.
It's estimated that 600 million people were glued to their television sets in 1969 when Apollo 11's lunar module landed on the moon (a record that held until Lady Diana married the Prince of Wales), but for six-year-old Matt Abbott, it was something else that captured his imagination.
“I don't remember the detail so much as the feeling and how the things going on struck me. Everybody thought being an astronaut was so cool, but I was captivated by the shot of mission control: the consoles, the ground control elements of the space mission. It grabbed me back then, and it was always in the back of my mind, and guided my interests throughout my life.”
Today, Abbott serves as Flight Director of NASA, lives in Houston, and fulfills his need for speed through recreational interests in cars, motor sports, motorcycling, karting and traveling. His career trajectory seems just as swift; from 1990 until 1997 he supported 27 Space Shuttle launches and 11 landings as Orbit Flight Dynamics Officer or Trajectory Officer. After a short stint with the Canadian Space Agency (Canada's not all bad; they gave us William Shatner), he returned to Johnson Space Center as Flight Director in 2001.
“It's interesting. I'm not sure why I found [mission control] so captivating. It seemed really cool how there was this team of people on the ground making this all happen,” says Abbott. “I was always interested in NASA and the space program and, really, science fiction.
“When I was about 10, Star Trek was in syndication. In the afternoon my friends and I would watch it every day.” He puts Balance of Terror, Assignment: Earth and The Doomsday Machine in his top three list of episodes.
Abbott says that it's fascinating to look back 50 years to the technology of Star Trek, to see how well the writers and show creators predicted the future. “When you look back at the original series – the communicators – we thought were the coolest things as kids. Now I have two cell phones in my pocket."
Television shows like Star Trek also opened our eyes to the possibility of other intelligent life. “We haven't seen any evidence [of extraterrestrial life], but it's an awfully big universe,” says Abbott, adding that we need to continue to find ways to explore our environment, our solar system and the solar systems around us and beyond. “As we do that, we'll learn more and more about the universe, the physics and any other life. I certainly hope there is; we have to keep looking.
"Really Star Trek or any other science fiction is about driving the imagination, and it's that kind of thing that fuels the vision to explore,” says Abbott. “In terms of technology and driving us forward to Mars, something like that would be in my lifetime; I would love to see us get people on Mars. I can't imagine what little kids will see in their lifetime. It's exciting to think about the possibilities."
Abbott says that, as a child, he and his friends loved talking about Star Trek. “There's a tie in to space flight and what we do at NASA and what we have done in the past and are working to do in the future,” says Abbott. “That's what it's all about: expanding human presence away from Earth and out into the solar system and into the universe.”