January 3, 2020

Where Are Our Transporter Pads?

William Shatner

I grew up watching re-runs of the original Star Trek series on TV, which I still regard as the only one that deserves the name. Back in the mid-1970s, the future they depicted seemed so far off. In the decades since, a few of the technologies featured on the show have become realities. We now have sophisticated computers, tablets, and smartphones. We have smart light bulbs, laser measures, indoor wireless cameras (hackers can use to spy on us), and a range of voice-controlled home automation devices. We even have self-driving cars (almost). Of course, we've also seen many technological innovations that weren't even imagined by those who created the show. But there is at least one glaring exception where we seem to have made no progress whatsoever, and it continues to puzzle me that it isn't even something we hear about our scientists working on.

Suppose I am in Denver and I need to get to Los Angeles. How do I do it? I could drive a car or take a train, but I need to get there more quickly than either would allow. Strangely, we still don't have high-speed rail in the U.S. I'm going to have to get on a plane, aren't I? And in the decades between the original Star Trek and now, we still haven't found anything faster and less awful than the airplane. How is this possible?

As far as I was concerned, the coolest thing Star Trek ever envisioned was the transporter pad. Why don't we have these? Why isn't getting from Denver to LA as simple as stepping on a pad and being teleported from one location to another? Perhaps this sort of thing is not possible and never will be. That sucks, but okay. If that's the case, why haven't we developed true high-speed alternatives? If modern commercial airplanes are faster than what was available in the late 1960s, we don't seem to be talking about large differences. The travel time between Denver and LA hasn't been cut in half, for example. It still takes several hours to cross the country, and that assumes you are lucky enough to find a direct flight.

Air travel has become such an ordeal that some of us have refused to keep doing it. I haven't been on a plane in over 15 years and dread the experience enough that I have no plans to do so until I have to. Before one can even get on a plane, one must endure the long lines, high prices, and intrusive groping by security. Once one is finally seated in a small uncomfortable seat with little room, the real fun begins. An outside observer would have to conclude that someone in charge of this system is conducting a psychological experiment designed to push people to their breaking point. Is there really no better way to do this?

Now that climate change has finally started to be something at least some people are paying attention to, I can't help but wonder if more people will be rethinking air travel. It is one thing to willingly subject ourselves to all the indignities and discomforts it entails; recognizing how it contributes to pollution is something else. Again, are we even trying to come up with a viable alternative?

It is 2020, and we still don't have the flying cars we were promised. I can't buy a laser gun for "self-defense," and our space ships are laughably primitive. I'll gladly let all that go, but I need my transporter pad. And if that's not possible because Jesus refuses to bend the laws of physics for us, then I'll settle for some other means of travel significantly faster than modern planes that does not require us to participate in all the nonsense surrounding commercial air travel.