William Shatner, the original Captain Kirk in “Star Trek,” visited space in real life on a Blue Origin rocket on Oct. 12, making the gap between “Star Trek”and reality so much closer. 

Elsbeth Magilton, the executive director of the Nebraska Governance and Technology Center and the Space, Cyber and Telecommunications Law program, has used the franchise to help compare various aspects of the movie and space law in the real world. 

“I started doing this sort of amusing comparative law exercise with ‘Star Trek’ and it was just so much fun,” Magilton said. 

Several years ago, Magilton was part of a comic book club and went to see Dan Claes, a professor of physics and astronomy and chair of the physics and astronomy department, give a speech at Love Library where he was teaching physics through DC Entertainment characters. After hearing him speak, she realized she learned quite a bit about physics even though it wasn’t a strong point of hers. 

Magilton, who realized she could use similar tactics to teach about her areas of research,  ended up giving a SciPop talk about space law and “Star Trek.” 

“I think it’s kind of a topic that resonates and it’s fun,” she said. 

A few months after giving the talk, Magilton was contacted by CBS Home Entertainment to give a talk about her research at an event called Teaching with Trek where people from all around the country came and gave talks about their expertise, relating it back to “Star Trek.” 

“It was so fun and a crazy experience to be with all of these hardcore ‘Star Trek’ fans,” she said. 

Magilton has continued to give talks about space law and other things she is researching at UNL and believes that the “Star Trek” analogy is a good tool to help teach about these things. 

“I think science fiction is a powerful tool to explore difficult, complex human issues in a way that we can sort of remove ourselves from the difficulty and explore it through a fictional medium,” she said. 

Claes said that using pop culture like “Star Trek” and DC can help simplify complicated and abstract concepts, making them more understandable for people wanting to learn and understand more about these topics. 

“If you can take concepts that may seem very obscure or complex or abstract, and re-express them in terms that they understand, in contexts that are associated with things that they enjoy a lot, then yeah, they're more willing to meet you halfway,” he said. 

When someone can make the connection between something difficult and something they are familiar and comfortable with, they get a real understanding of the concepts, according to Claes. 

With Shatner recently going to space on the Blue Origin suborbital capsule it has led to excitement about the future of commercial space travel. With space companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX becoming more involved in space and space travel, Magilton believes there is important work to be done. 

“You know, I think we're at a really exciting time and I am supportive of the commercial space industry,” she said. “I think it's a little controversial between a lot of people right now, but I think the innovation that we can push there is important.”