As we reach the last few hours of Back to the Future Day, which commemorates the day that Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrived in “the future” in Back to the Future II, it’s time to look forward to the next historical date-to-be from science fiction. Personally, I’m looking forward to Star Trek’s First Contact Day, which will occur in our timeframe in about five decades.
“First contact” generally refers to the initial encounter between two cultures or, in science fiction, humanity’s first meeting with an extraterrestrial civilization. In the Star Trek canon, first contact occurs 48 years from now in Bozeman, Montana.
An eccentric scientist named Zefram Cochrane builds (or will build) the first faster-than-light spaceship out of a nuclear missile housed in one of the thousands of decommissioned silos scattered throughout the North American interior. He launches the ship into space and successfully tests its warp drive on the morning of April 5, 2063. A nearby Vulcan starship detects Cochrane’s ship traveling faster than the speed of light and makes first contact in Bozeman that evening:
Back to the Future Day celebrates a momentous event in the film’s plot, but a relatively minor one overall. First contact, on the other hand, is depicted as a pivotal moment in human history.
In the 1997 film Star Trek: First Contact—one of the franchise’s best—a cybernetic species called the Borg tries to conquer Earth in the 24th century. When their invasion fails, a Borg ship travels back in time to kill Cochrane and prevent first contact, thereby limiting humanity’s development and making Earth easier to conquer. (Imagine a platoon of 21st-century British soldiers using time travel to kill George Washington at Valley Forge.) Their efforts are thwarted when the Enterprise also travels back to this century and helps Cochrane’s ship make its historic flight.
Back to the Future Day lets us compare our expectations and the reality of technology in 2015. As Megan observed today, the film got a lot wrong about the future of technology—no hoverboards, alas—but accurately depicted the ceaseless march of tech-driven consumerism in our everyday lives.
First Contact Day, by comparison, will be an opportunity to reflect on our social progress. The discovery of faster-than-light propulsion allows humans to explore the galaxy, thereby providing the technological basis for Star Trek. But first contact changes our species’s fundamental view of itself and inspires Star Trek’s utopian vision. “It unites humanity in a way no one ever thought possible when they realize they’re not alone in the universe,” one of the Enterprise crew members from the 24th century tells Cochrane before his flight. “Poverty, disease, war—they’ll all be gone within the next fifty years.”
This is all fictional, of course! But that won’t stop me from venturing to Bozeman on April 5, 2063 to see what happens. At worst, my 73-year-old future self will get to wander through Montana’s beautiful natural scenery. But maybe—just maybe—I’ll be able to witness the first day of the future.