The Starfleet Academy Experience is the best birthday present Star Trek could get

And it's coming to a city near you

When Star Trek: The Starfleet Academy Experience set up practically in the backyard of Polygon’s New York office, we knew we had to check it out. It’s probably the most unique Star Trek event you could attend this year.

And it's a year where Star Trek has a lot going: a new movie, pre-production on a long-awaited return to television and, of course, the franchise’s 50th anniversary. It’ll be celebrating in style, with a touring art show and concerts, three separate fan conventions and even a Star Trek-themed cruise. But forget all the shows, conventions and cruises.

I was advised that my risk-averse personality and diplomatic inclinations aligned best with a Communication specialization.

The Starfleet Academy Experience is a visiting exhibit at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on the West Side of Manhattan — although it’ll be going on tour around the country soon enough. In it, museum-goers are cast as prospective students attending Starfleet Academy’s Career Day. They’re introduced to the seven specialties available to Starfleet officers (that’s Communication, Medical, Science, Engineering, Navigation, Tactical and Command, but I’m sure you had them memorized already) and, as they are guided through various activities and quizzes, the exhibit sorts them into the specialty that most suits their interests and aptitude.

"We really wanted to celebrate ... this idea that the science of today has finally caught up to the imagination of Gene Roddenberry and his writers from fifty years ago," Liz Kalodner, CBS Consumer Products’ executive vice president, told me. "The communicator, it became the mobile phone. The PADD that they had in Next Generation became the iPad; the holodeck is now virtual reality; Geordi LaForge’s VISOR, Google Glass; the talking computer, Siri. This idea that Star Trek imagined it and then it came true, we think is stunning. And so the idea of putting science in that context we just thought was a lot of fun."

The exhibit is full of technology of our time masquerading as technology of the 24th Century. At the Medical area, visitors pass a "medical tricorder" over a prone Klingon, and diagnose his particular malady. There’s a hologram on display by the transporter banks, a marksmanship exercise with phasers, and — although it was not ready in time for the press preview event — a Klingon language lesson using voice recognition technology.

As visitors interact with each installment, they’re asked to swipe their wristbands, handed to them at the beginning of the exhibit. Their "aptitude" for each exercise is noted, and as they leave they can swipe once more to receive their results — including pictures and video of their activities at certain segments of the exhibit — and an official recommendation of which specialty they are most suited for. But before that, they walk through a full replica of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s bridge, where they can take the infamous Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario.

I was advised that my risk-averse personality and diplomatic inclinations aligned best with a Communication specialization.

Starfleet Academy

The often tangled interplay between real life fact and Star Trek fiction is core to The Starfleet Academy Experience. Among displays of props and costumes, each section of the exhibit highlights real, modern technologies that are approaching the capabilities of the futuristic machines that characterize Star Trek stories. It’s all couched in the language of a future museum exhibit examining how human technology worked in the past, and these factual aspects of the experience are reemphasized by the quizzes visitors take to determine their specializations.

Some of the exhibits’ facts are real knots of text and meta-text. This is best exemplified in the Medical section, where the 21st century technology that "evolved" into 24th-century technology is the Tricorder X Prize, a real life initiative that was directly inspired by Star Trek. In the exhibit, it’s implicitly described as an in-fiction historical step on the way to Starfleet’s medical tricorder.

I asked Mike Massimino, senior advisor to the Intrepid Museum and a NASA astronaut who participated in the Hubble repair missions, whether bringing an exhibit that played with fiction so centrally was a concern for the history and science-focused Intrepid Museum. After all, the Intrepid is a decommissioned aircraft carrier that’s been transformed into a museum not only of the history of itself — but of the real lives of the men who served on its decks and the technology involved making the ship and the planes that it carried functional.

"I think it fits very well in with what the mission of the museum is, which is to educate and inspire in things related to sea, air and space," he responded readily. The exhibit "provides a place for families to come, for young people to come," he continued, "and it’s not just a static display about ‘this is what a TV show or movie was about,’ it is interactive, it’s educational ... A lot of astronauts were inspired by things like Star Trek and I think a lot of young people are going to be inspired coming in here to the Intrepid Museum."

But the common goal of creating inspiring work about science and space isn’t the only thing that links the Intrepid Museum and Star Trek.

The centerpiece of one of the Intrepid’s most impressive exhibits is NASA’s Space Shuttle Enterprise, and that name isn’t a coincidence. The ship was set to be christened the Constitution in 1976, in honor of America’s bicentennial, but science fiction intervened. More than 400,000 Star Trek fans petitioned president Gerald Ford to change the name of the Constitution in honor of the show — and he directed NASA to do so.

Enterprise Intrepid

Star Trek’s cultural impact is indisputable these days, but in 1976 it was significantly less sure. Star Trek went off the air in 1969, a month before the first moon landing. Part of the Intrepid’s real-life Enterprise exhibit includes the Star Trek fan magazine that celebrated the Enterprise shuttle’s unveiling — an event attended by the cast of Star Trek: The Original Series. It contains such adorable gems as a review of the very first Star Trek novel and a list of the greatest science fiction films of all time that’s surprisingly unrecognizable.

Intrepid Enterprise

2001: A Space Odyssey is on that list, as well as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Day of the Triffids. This might seem strange, until you remember that in 1976, Star Wars was still several months from hitting theaters. Alien was two years away. Star Trek wasn’t even a franchise yet: Star Trek: The Motion Picture's production would be scrapped a year later without getting out of script stages. Live-action science fiction film was barely out of the "spaceships on wires" model of filmmaking.

Star Trek fans belonged to a dormant franchise, with no sure continuation in sight, and they could still prove that their series was worthy of rechristening a massive, billion-dollar piece of real space technology.

The renaming of the Enterprise shuttle was in some ways the closing of a loop. The fictional Enterprise, along with many of its Starfleet sisters, were named for real-world naval vessels that participated in World War II. In the wake of the Second World War and the throes of the Cold War, the writers of Star Trek wanted to portray a future where ships with American and Japanese names worked together. From July 9 until Oct. 31, the Enterprise shuttle exhibit, with its section on Star Trek fandom, will rest above and slightly to the left of The Starfleet Academy Experience.

"I think a lot of young people are going to be inspired coming in here to the Intrepid Museum"

Star Trek is a story, but it’s one that’s had a palpable and sometimes profound effect on the real history and technology. Knowing a number of astronauts who have paid tribute to their love of Star Trek (or even cameoed on the show), I asked Massimino if shared a connection with the franchise. He told me that when he was in kindergarten, every Friday night was Star Trek night with his brother.

"Stories of exploration and traveling through the stars in general I found cool. And I wanted to do it myself ... It was entertainment, but it was also a bit of inspiration, I think, for me and I think for a lot of astronauts."

It’s stuff like that interplay between fact and fiction — the celebration of fiction, and its effect on reality — that makes The Starfleet Academy Experience feel like the most fitting tribute to the 50-year-old franchise of any of the planned anniversary events.