Star Trek turns 50 this September, and while fans will have to wait until next year for a taste of the new TV show, they can still have their own immersive Trek experience this summer at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York. If you’ve ever wanted to helm a starship, sit in the captain’s chair or try your hand at the infamously impossible Kobayashi Maru exam, the Starfleet Academy Experience will give you that chance. And while you’re there, you can also take a little walk through the past half of a century of Star Trek history.
Starfleet has always been at the heart of every Star Trek show, so it makes sense for it to be the centerpiece of a Star Trek exhibit, especially an interactive one. Each attendee who buys a ticket is asked to make a profile and then given an RFID wristband to track their progress using the various kiosks inside. It’s similar to the Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. exhibit that graced the Discovery Times Square museum back in 2014, in which attendees were asked to step into the shoes of a potential recruit of S.H.I.E.L.D., the super spy organization featured in various Marvel movies and TV shows.
The choice to place a visitor in the shoes of a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent makes sense according to in-universe logic: We’re all average people, unlikely to ever get superpowers though an accident at a lab, and we certainly can’t afford to build flying mechanical suits like Tony Stark did. We’re more likely to join S.H.I.E.L.D., supporting the superpowered individuals from behind the scenes. At the same time, that’s not very exciting. We don’t imagine we’ll be Nick Fury someday; we’d rather be Steve Rogers, a noble but scrawny kid from Brooklyn who got superpowers and became strong and skilled as a result.
Star Trek is different, though. It’s usually portrayed as an egalitarian future: Anyone can join Starfleet, and anyone can succeed through skill and hard work. As a kid I imagined myself on the bridge of a starship. I didn’t even care about being the captain; I just wanted to explore the galaxy. And it’s that impulse that the Starfleet Academy Experience taps into.
Here, you assume the role of a potential student at Starfleet Academy, sampling the various paths you can take in your hypothetical Starfleet career. It’s a cosmic career day, if you will. The exhibit is broken up into sections based on the branches in Starfleet: medicine, tactics, science, engineering, navigation, communications and, of course, command. In the medical section you can scan a sleeping Klingon patient with a medical tricorder. To test your tactical prowess, you’re asked to fire a phaser at various moving targets on a screen. Unfortunately, a lot of the stations were still inoperative when I attended a press preview last week; I was reminded of the opening sequence from Star Trek: Generations, in which the newly launched Enterprise-B doesn’t have a tractor beam, torpedoes or even a medical staff because they won’t arrive until Tuesday.
Since the Intrepid is a museum, the exhibition is about more than playing short games and living out your dream of being in Starfleet. Throughout the exhibit are plenty of displays showcasing various pieces of Star Trek lore, both in universe and out. You’ll find props from all the live-action Star Trek series, including uniforms, tricorders and phasers. Many of the items are on loan from the Filmwelt Collection, a private stash of Star Trek memorabilia based out of Germany. Filmwelt founder Martin Netter told us that he has items on loan to multiple Star Trek exhibitions on tour right now, including one in Nürnberg, Germany. Netter said he collects these items not only for his love of the franchise but also to share them with others because of the influence Trek has had on our present-day culture and technology.
Evidence of the latter was certainly easy to see through the props on display, with the early communicators of the original series resembling flip phones of 10 years ago, while the PADD units that made their appearance on The Next Generation aren’t dissimilar from today’s tablets. You can even see the original Galileo shuttle on display next to the real space shuttle Enterprise. While speaking at the preview event last week, George Takei shared the same sentiment about Star Trek’s influence: “This is the future.”
George Takei speaks to reporters at the Starfleet Academy Experience press preview.
It certainly feels like it when you step into the last part of the exhibit: a re-creation of the Enterprise-D bridge, complete with a captain’s chair. The seat might be great for photo opportunities, but those with real ambitions for command might want to take a crack at the Kobayashi Maru exam on one of the eight consoles. The Kobayashi Maru is a training exercise given to Starfleet Academy graduates to determine their aptitude for command. They’re given an impossible choice: A small vessel is in distress in the middle of the Neutral Zone. You can cross into the zone to save the ship but risk an interstellar incident with the Klingons or preserve peace by leaving the ship to its fate. It’s meant to be unbeatable: Kirk won, but only by cheating.
For visitors to the Starfleet Academy Experience, the Kobayashi Maru scenario here is a bit more forgiving. You’re still tasked with saving the crew of the distressed ship and the Klingons will attack, but it doesn’t seem as hopeless, possibly because you’re only being asked to monitor a series of life bars indicating the strength of your ship’s shields, hull and the condition of the Kobayashi Maru. I found it frustrating that once the battle had begun, I couldn’t cut my losses and run: The options are limited to attacking the Klingons, evading their attacks or hunkering down and taking fire while protecting the other ship. The Kobayashi Maru was destroyed, though not before I saved 165 crew members. Still, even with all of those lives saved, the simulation told me I needed “more training.”
As I left the exhibition I stopped by the kiosk and got my final results: I was suited best for tactical, even with my crap phaser skills. Meanwhile, my colleague Michael Morris found out he was on the fast track to a command position. I knew he looked damn good sitting in that captain’s chair.
Associate Social Media Editor Michael Morris takes the captain’s chair for a spin.
The Starfleet Academy Experience will run at the Intrepid Museum from July 9th through Oct. 31st. If you can’t make it to New York, there’s also one at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa until Sept. 5th, and both the US and Canadian exhibits will still be on tour through 2017 and beyond.