The original Star Trek television series premiered in 1966, fifty years ago, but modern society is still inspired by the technology that could boldly bring the crew of the Enterprise where no man had gone before. The communicators used on the show inspired the flip phones of the early 2000s, and the PADD, or Personal Access Data Device, influenced the development of the tablet computer.
Just as technology from the original series captured the imaginations of engineers and scientists, so too did the devices from Star Trek: The Next Generation. "Star Trek's conversant computer we might now call Siri," Liz Kalodner, Executive Vice President and General Manager of CBS Consumer Products, toldPopular Science. (Author's note: CBS owns the rights to the Star Trek television franchises.) "The universal translator influenced Google Translate, and Geordi La Forge's visor inspired Google Glass. As for today's virtual reality, it's really the Holodeck come to pass. Science fiction has become science reality."
Tne technology that has yet to be replicated though is perhaps the most famous of the series—the replicator, a machine that recycles matter to create any object that has been programmed into its database. Replicators seemed, at best, far-fetched when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, and more likely impossible. But with consumer and commercial 3D printers becoming much more commonplace, the concept of a replicator-like device isn't so impossible anymore.
This past February, Future Engineers, an online platform that hosts challenges for young inventors, issued the Star Trek Replicator challenge in partnership with NASA, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Foundation and Star Trek. The competition, which seeks to inspire the next generation of makers, challenges K-12 students (with the help of college-aged or older mentors) to design a digital 3D model of a non-edible food item to be 3D printed aboard the International Space Station and beyond in the year 2050. Coming up with solutions for the astronauts of the future will require the makers to think of all aspects of eating, from growing and storing crops to disposing of food waste, and how they can be achieved in a sustainable manner. "3D printing is also a way to empower students with the overall idea that if you can dream it, your can build it," Deanne Bell, co-founder of Future Engineers and a member of the ASME Foundation, told Popular Science. "The earlier we introduce that to a student, the bigger they will dream and build."
Those makers may not be students who consider themselves to be good at math or science. Niki Werkheiser, a Future Engineers co-founder and NASA Project Manager for In-Space Manufacturing, toldPopular Science this competition aims to teach children and teens who are more artistically-focused that engineering is a mindset, not a degree. "We need that creativity, folks that can think outside the box, and that design process is very creative," she said. "A lot of times people don't think of that when they think of engineering. Some of those artists are our best designers."