While Richard Heim was embarking on his career as a meteorologist more than 40 years ago, he joined millions of others gathered around a television each week to watch the original Star Trek — the three-season, groundbreaking science-fiction series whose appearance coincided with the peak of American space exploration in the 1960s.
“On television, we were exploring strange new worlds in fiction with Star Trek, but with the Apollo program we were exploring strange new worlds for real,” Heim recalls. “[Captain] Kirk and [Commander] Spock visited planets in fiction, but the NASA astronauts were really walking on the moon. Those were exciting times, and were a big reason I entered the scientific field.”
Heim’s attachment to the Star Trek saga, through the series’ renaissance in feature films and the Next Generation TV franchise, has endured to such an extent that he now finds himself as Commanding Officer of a starship, in the form of North Carolina’s Star Trek Club USS Alaric, one of some 200 chapters of STARFLEET International, the earliest of a number of Star Trek fan clubs founded in Texas in 1973.
The Alaric was launched in 1982. “Members in various parts of the state formed their own ‘shuttles,’ or chapters, of the Alaric over the years, so the Alaric now has a Western North Carolina focus,” Heim explains. “It’s the proud mothership of all the North Carolina chapters.”
Heim came aboard the Alaric in the late 1980s, and is serving his second tour as Commanding Officer with a crew of about 40. Directly under his command are First and Second Officers, while other positions — from Chief Engineer to Chief Helmsman and Chief Medical Officer — are apportioned among the membership. Heim produces a monthly “Captain’s Briefing” for his crew; in a recent issue, he announced promotions in rank for several crew members, who can advance all the way up the STARFLEET International ladder to Admiral, based on their activity level with the club. Heim’s own STARFLEET rank is Vice-Admiral.
Diana Sanderson, an archivist at a local private school, joined the crew three years ago, even though she’d wanted to join the club back in the 1990s, when the Next Generation television reboot was popular. “But I had two small children at the time and zero free time,” Sanderson recalls. “So when the new series of films started to come out in 2009, I finally had the time and incentive. I really enjoy the folks in the Alaric chapter.” As with most Trekkies, Sanderson’s bond began in childhood, when she watched the original series with her father, a scientist. “I still prefer the Next Generation for the thoughtfulness and outstanding stories,” adds Sanderson, “and the amazing look and feel of the [show’s] 24th century. Even today, with all the advances in CGI and filmmaking technology, the show holds up very well.”
The Alaric began exploring strange new worlds just as STARFLEET International was going seriously off course. It endured a series of political squabbles among the national leadership during the 1980s and an IRS accusation in the early ’90s that it hadn’t filed any tax returns, as required by the agency’s regulations governing nonprofits. While SFI found new leadership, including a tax attorney who managed to get the non-payment claims dismissed, and got itself back on course, the Alaric sailed on unperturbed with its ongoing series of recreational activities for members, including hikes and movie nights, and its dedication to promoting science education in schools.
“The club’s most important non-Star Trek activity is science education,” Heim confirms. “For the last three years, we’ve been asked to man a recruiting table at the Roper Mountain Science Center’s Space Day events in Greenville [SC], and we worked with the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute [in Rosman, near Brevard] to help present talks on NASA missions to Mars, when Curiosity landed there.”
STARFLEET itself offers many legitimate educational opportunities in the sciences through its Starfleet Academy, with correspondence courses in geology, astrophysics, computer science, and a host of other topics.
In keeping with the Star Trek directive of diversity and tolerance (the original series famously featured the first interracial kiss ever seen on television, between Kirk and Uhura), the makeup of the Alaric’s crew ranges widely in terms of age, gender, and occupation, although each member may favor in particular one of the many Star Trek incarnations among the six TV series and the 12 feature films.
“I will always have a strong emotional and nostalgic attachment to the original series and cast,” says Ken Wheeler, a club member since 2009 who watched the series growing up in Buffalo, New York, and who is now the Second Officer of the Alaric. “It was a vision of all humanity finally coming together, getting past all our petty and superficial differences. It was quite a contrast to the many more Dystopian settings in many science-fiction stories.”
It’s that moral universe that remains Star Trek‘s biggest mission, the one that’s kept it going for four decades in the spirit of Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek‘s creator, who died in 1991. The real mission, Roddenberry once said, was “to do what the crew of the Enterprise does in every episode — go places and help people.”
Learn more about the USS Alaric, visit ussalaric.org