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William Shatner tweets at NASA, nerdiness ensues

Weston WilliamsThe Christian Science Monitor

To fans around the world, William Shatner will always be known as the captain of the USS Enterprise, and apparently NASA is no exception.

When Mr. Shatner, an avid Twitter user, tweeted “How is @NASA doing today?” on Saturday, he couldn’t have hoped for a better reply.

"Good day, Captain. #ISS is in standard orbit and Commander Swanson has the conn." NASA responded.

“Commander Swanson” refers to Steven R. Swanson, in charge of the current crew onboard the International Space Station, which has been in orbit since May, and will remain until September, according to NASA. 

This fantastically Star Trek-style response from a real-life space agency to a science-fiction icon set the Internet buzzing. Even Shatner himself seemed a little lost for words, tweeting only “Very good news!” in reply.

The exchange has gone viral, largely thanks to enthusiastic Twitter followers and an article on Buzzfeed, which called NASA's tweet "awesomely geeky."

The phrase “standard orbit,” despite its prevalence in the Trek universe, is not commonly used by astronauts. According to NASA website, the ISS orbits at an average altitude of 220 miles at an inclination of 51.6 degrees to the equator. This places the station in the zone of what is known as “Low Earth Orbit” (LEO). Objects in LEO have an altitude between 99 miles and 1,200 miles, a zone in which the vast majority of man-made satellites occupy. Therefore, LEO is the closest thing NASA has to what might be called a “standard” orbit.

Just because there’s no such thing as a Star Trek-style standard orbit doesn’t mean that the real life science of the space station’s spaceflight is any less exciting than the Enterprise’s fictional technobabble.

The ISS orbits the Earth at about 18,000 mph, going completely around the Earth about every 90 minutes. This means that the astronauts in orbit see 16 sunrises and sunsets per day. Because the orbit is at an angle to the equator, the ISS does not stay above a fixed spot (this would be considered a “geosynchronous” orbit). As such, the ISS is often visible to observers on Earth, even with the naked eye. 

Since the first crew arrived onboard the ISS in November of 2000, the craft has been continuously occupied for close to 14 years, the longest of any human-built spacecraft. That even beats Captain Kirk’s original 5-year tenure on the USS Enterprise.

The ISS and the Enterprise have similar missions. Each spaceship, ins own way, strives for scientific discovery in space in order to find out more about the universe and about ourselves as a species. No doubt that’s why the real NASA responded to the fictional Captain James T. Kirk. Without the inspiring, imaginative qualities of creative projects like Star Trek, the real advancements brought about through research on board the ISS might not have been possible.