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Rick Sternbach’s Artistry Boldly Shapes The Final Frontier

Extensive resume includes scientifically credible images of the fantastic

When Rick Sternbach was a kid, he was a fan of the greatest space opera in history. I refer, of course, to the adventures of the American and Russian space agencies, racing to the moon in a dazzling display of technological chutzpah.

Young Sternbach loved science fiction and grew up on such fare as “Destination Moon,” “Forbidden Planet” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” so this was about the most thrilling thing imaginable. That excitement has been a cornerstone of his life ever since.

Sternbach was lucky enough to have been a wide-eyed kid in those not-so-long-ago days when science was understood to be a vital part of our society, and when science fiction had not yet broken into the mainstream. And it was the era in which this nation wholeheartedly supported NASA’s efforts to go boldly, where none had gone before.

Most folks know Sternbach for his impressive body of work on Star Trek. But long before he set foot on the Paramount lot, he had already made a name for himself as an artist of scientifically credible images of the fantastic. His work graced the covers of many top sci-fi magazines, not to mention novels by such luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Larry Niven and more. Sternbach’s artistry earned him not one, but two Hugo Awards for Best Professional Artist. (Rick loaned one of his Hugo trophies to the studio to be used as set decoration in an episode of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” that was set in 1952, in the editorial offices of a science-fiction magazine!)

For the record, my favorite Sternbach painting is “Voyager Found,” which he did for a private collector. It depicts dolphin astronauts in spacesuits, retrieving the ancient NASA Voyager space probe to return it to the Smithsonian. Sternbach points out that not only are dolphins and other cetaceans highly intelligent, they may well have a better grasp of 3-space than we do, surely an advantage during an EVA in the interstellar void. (“Voyager Found” has echoes in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” If you listen carefully to the background of the episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” you might hear an intercom voice mentioning “Cetacean Ops.”)

After he moved to the West Coast, Sternbach found his talents were in demand. He worked on Disney’s “The Black Hole” and Carl Sagan’s original “Cosmos,” for which Sternbach won an Emmy award for visual effects. His early efforts in the digital realm include a stint at the Universal Studios computer graphics department, CG ship design for “The Last Starfighter” and work with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to visualize Jupiter’s Galilean satellites for the Voyager space probes.

On the final frontier, Rick’s contributions date back to “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” when he designed props and was responsible for many of the control panel graphics on the bridge. Sternbach returned to Gene Roddenberry’s future world to be one of the first designers hired for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” He stayed with the show through “Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek: Voyager,” and he even lent a hand with a number of the Trek movies.

Sternbach’s Star Trek designs include such diverse spacecraft as the Klingon attack cruiser, the Ares IV Mars orbiter, numerous shuttles including Voyager’s Delta Flyer and the Starship Voyager itself, and the Deep Space 9 station. Plus, Rick designed a whole lot of props for Starfleet and various aliens, including the phaser, tricorder, hypospray and the personal access display device, also known as the padd. That one may well have been an inspiration for the Apple iPad.

It was during those years that I was lucky enough to work with Sternbach. I already knew him to be a talented artist and I was delighted to learn he’s also a nice guy. But I also saw that Sternbach was a battle-hardened veteran of many hundreds of production meetings. Motion picture and television production is a tough, take-no-prisoners business. Yet Sternbach manages to find joy in his work, even when things get tense, as they often do when deadlines and budgets are involved. Maybe that’s because he never forgets that he loves what he does, even when others don’t.

Sternbach is a big fan of Japanese animé. During “The Next Generation” he made it his personal mission to sneak in as many references to animé as possible into the show. The nadion, a mysterious subatomic particle involved in phaser beams? That was Sternbach. The exocomps, which look oddly like a cute robot named Manmo from “The Dirty Pair”? That was Sternbach, too. But Sternbach’s greatest animé coup was probably when he persuaded our writers to name an entire race after one of his favorite animé films. The name of the snarly Nausicaans was borrowed from “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.”

One of the most famous episodes of “The Next Generation” was the two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds.” Picard was abducted by the Borg, and Riker was forced to give a command he believed would kill his captain. It was Trek’s first big season-ending cliffhanger, and fandom (including the early Internet) was abuzz with wild speculation about what would happen in Part 2. In truth, writer Michael Piller didn’t know what the resolution would be at the time he wrote the cliffhanger. But that didn’t stop Sternbach and I. We wrote a few pages of a fake screenplay in which Picard wakes up in the sonic shower as Q taunts him. We typed it up in an official-looking script format and left a copy “casually” lying around the art department for the overly curious to discover. We wondered if anyone would take the bait.

We’re not exactly sure how it happened, but a few days later, Internet sci-fi bulletin boards lit up with angry pundits denouncing what they called a Dallas-like “ripoff” by Star Trek’s writers. A couple of folks got pretty heated. We probably should have set them straight, but we were too busy laughing. It’s been a lot of years, and I hope those folks have forgiven us. (If not, it was all Sternbach’s idea!)

Sternbach and I served as tech consultants to Star Trek’s writers. That meant that we reviewed the scripts and suggested some of the scientific and pseudo-technical terms. We also tried to help minimize scientific bloopers. The trick was to suggest things that still let the writer tell his or her story the way he or she wants. Sadly, this meant you really shouldn’t suggest a 10-page speech on the uncertainty principle. Not even two pages.

Nevertheless, we bombarded the show’s writers with a stream of tech memos. Neither of us have degrees in science, but as the show’s resident science geeks, we were happy that the writers seemed to appreciate the input. Piller, who also served as an executive producer, eventually even gave us screen credit as “technical consultants.” There was just one problem. Seems that some writers fell in love with “technobabble” a little more than they should have. Once in a while, a script would end up with some embarrassingly long chunks of that impenetrable verbage. On the occasions when this happened, we made it a point to stay away from the shooting stages. We feared we might find ourselves on the receiving end of an unappreciative glare from whichever poor cast member had to deliver those lines. We never got a nasty glare from Patrick Stewart, but we definitely did not want to take that chance!

Stewart, by the way, turned out to have a delightful attitude toward tech on the show. One day, we were on our way back from a production meeting and we ran into the good captain outside one of the soundstages. “How,” he asked us, “does warp drive really work?” Neither of us noticed the twinkle in his eye. We both started talking about Einstein and relativity and space warps and the fact that no one really knows if FTL travel is even possible. Stewart let us babble for a while, then he interrupted. “Nonsense,” he said. “It’s very simple. All you have to do is say, ‘Engage!’” And he was right!

Eventually, we compressed our memos into a big FAQ we called the Writers’ Technical Manual. Roddenberry liked it and had it distributed to the show’s writers. To our surprise, it was just a matter of weeks until we saw the document bootlegged at Star Trek conventions. That was enough to persuade us to call Pocket Books the following Monday to pitch the idea of an in-universe technical manual for the Starship Enterprise-D.

We had way too much fun writing that book. We did a lot of brainstorming during lunch breaks while working at the studio. During those lunches we often found ourselves chuckling at the finer points of transporter pattern buffers and structural integrity fields while munching on carne asada burritos at a little diner across the street from the studio or eating curry ramen noodles in Little Tokyo. (Doesn’t everyone?)

For someone whose work is often at the very cutting edge of science and technology, Sternbach’s tools and techniques are sometimes surprisingly old-school. Sternbach is no luddite. He does a lot of his work using 3-D and 2-D digital tools. Still, Sternbach insists that for getting ideas onto paper, there’s nothing faster than grabbing a pen and “going crazy” on a piece of 11-by-17 paper.

These days, Sternbach keeps himself busy with a surprising range of projects. Some of them are Trek-related, like his Klingon Bird-of-Prey manual for Haynes. Others come from real space, from planetary surface models for the Griffith Park Observatory to hyper-accurate decals for the Saturn V moon rocket to a concept model of an asteroid-retrieval spacecraft for the Keck Institute.

Sternbach enjoys conventions, but he’s probably happiest when he’s hunched over his drawing board or computer, listening to an eclectic playlist on his iPod, maybe munching on peanut butter M&M’S, working out the intricate details of a cool spaceship, figuring out what it might look like to stand on the surface of an uncharted alien world or chuckling to himself as he stretches real-world science into something that no one has dreamed of yet.

There’s no doubt, Sternbach’s still a wide-eyed kid. And he’s still loving it.

© 2015 Michael and Denise Okuda.

Rick Sternbach’s work on Star Trek was extensive, and it included his book “Star Trek: Klingon Bird-of-Prey Haynes Manual.”

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