How Star Trek Explained Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance

New York Daily News Front Page Headline following Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance National Archives

Every few years, a new theory emerges that claims to solve one of the 20th century’s greatest mysteries: What happened to Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan during their attempt to circumnavigate the globe? The most recent theory, based on a photo that purports to show Earhart in Japanese custody, suggests that she didn’t die mid-flight, but instead as a prisoner. It’s already been debunked.

As with most mysteries of this kind, the public will likely never accept a definitive conclusion. But we can always wonder—and that’s exactly what another version of Earhart’s end does. Here, then, is a fictional, but inspiring end to Earhart’s story pulled from the mythology of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek Universe, where the story of the pioneering pilot picks up 400 years later, on the other side of the Milky Way galaxy…

The Federation Starship USS Voyager and its Captain, Kathryn Janeway, seemed to have suffered a similar fate to Earhart. While on a routine mission, the ship, along with its 150 member crew, were whisked away to the Delta quadrant against their will and stranded almost 60 years of travel (at top speed) away from Earth. With no clues to their disappearance or any trail behind them, Voyager was marooned without any way to call home in a part of the Galaxy where no human existed or has ever travelled to. Or so they they thought.

One day, while traveling through the vast expanse of the Delta quadrant on a journey that many on Voyager would probably never see the end of, a strange material is picked up by the ship’s sensors: rusted metal. Given that there’s no oxygen in space, the detection was out of place. But not any stranger than finding a 1936 Ford pickup truck floating in the vacuum of space, which is what Voyager encountered a few moments later. The crew brought the vehicle into their loading bay and examined the 20th century relic.  They also scanned for nearby wormholes and temporal anomalies to try and explain the extreme displacement, but found nothing.

The Voyager’s crew examined the pickup and found a working AM radio. After turning it on, they received an SOS distress signal emitting from a nearby planet with an oxygen-rich atmosphere. They quickly set course for the world, which sits in the third position from its host star, much like Earth. Upon arrival, they determined that the SOS signal came from a continent in the planet’s northern hemisphere. The crew established that due to the atmospheric conditions on the planet, they could not safely beam down an away team to investigate and couldn’t safely land a shuttle pod.

Desperate to figure out how a human-made object made it so far into the galaxy and who was sending out a Earth-native SOS signal, Captain Janeway decided to land Voyager on the planet’s surface. Such an action is rare due to Voyager’s massive size, but was justified given the possibility of determining how a human presence could possibly be so far from home. Why the urgency? Because their findings could help Voyager find a way back to Earth.

After touching down on the planet’s surface, two Voyager teams are dispatched to investigate a detected power source and the SOS signal, which is nearby. The team led by Captain Janeway pursued the signal and soon discovered another relic from the 20th century: a Lockheed Model 10 Electra twin-engine airplane. The plane was made famous after it was thought to have crashed and sunk into the ocean in 1937 along with its passengers, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. Just over the hill, another team discovers a cave in the location where Voyager detected the emitting power source.

Amelia Earhart and her ill-fated Lockheed Electra airplane. National Archives

With Captain Janeway joining those in the cave, they came across a handful of cryostasis chambers, which are generally used to keep lifeforms alive in deep sleep for long periods of time. The crew determined that the chambers are still powered on and that their inhabitants are alive, but barely. Upon examining the first chamber, the crew finds a Japanese soldier still in uniform and next to him, an African-American man dressed like a farmer. A quick analysis using Voyager’s database determined that the clothing is from the mid 1930s. Further down the line of deep sleep chambers, they find another man and woman.

Upon further examination, Captain Janeway noticed that the female was wearing a leather jacket with gold wings pinned above the breast pocket and a name printed below it: A. Earhart. Janeway, taken back, immediately explained to her crew that Earhart was one of Earth’s first female pilots and the first female aviator to cross the Atlantic ocean. During a meeting back at Voyager, Janeway continued to explain that Earhart’s disappearance 400 years prior was one of history’s “celebrated mysteries.” She also mentioned that one of the most ridiculed notions surrounding the case was that Earhart was abducted by aliens. Janeway’s first officer, Commander Chakotay, quickly pointed out that may have been the case.

A decision is made by Janeway to wake Earhart and the others. She ordered a quick review of “ancient” Earth customs while only human members of the crew were selected to open the cryostasis chambers. This would prevent the abducted humans from being shocked or frightened. Before waking them, the crew disarmed the Japanese soldier for safety but little did Voyager’s crew know, another one of them was armed: Fred Noonan, Earhart’s navigator. The abductees soon regained consciousness and are baffled by what has happened. The last thing they remembered was going about their business in 1937.

Almost immediately after waking, an angered Noonan demanded answers. Janeway explained that it is the year 2371 and they are very far from home, likely following an abduction by an extraterrestrial species. Earhart didn’t buy it at first but when Janeway reasoned with her and offered to show her Voyager, she began to listen. The lost pilot described to Janeway the moments before losing consciousness. Earhart and Noonan saw a “huge light” before their Electra plane stopped mid-air and began moving backwards. An angered Noonan still doesn’t buy the abduction story and pulls out his gun. The now-awakened abductees took a few members of Voyager’s crew hostage in the cave and demanded answers.

Captain Janeway continued to make the case for what really happened and revealed that one of her crew members is of another species. Earhart countered by explaining that she’s travelled the world and has seen people do strange things to their bodies. She also argued that just because that crew member appears different, doesn’t mean that “Martians have invaded.” Another crew member gleefully interrupted and explained that actually, it was humans who invaded and colonized Mars in 2103.

Captain Janeway revealed to Earhart that because of her, generations of women became pilots and even inspired Janeway herself to pursue a career that would lead to commanding the Starship Voyager. Earhart argued that “starships” only existed in the writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Janeway pleas with the abductees that Voyager’s crew just wanted to help them and tells Earhart about the aftermath of her disappearance. Janeway explained that no trace of the Electra was ever found and that rumours surrounding the flight included the possibility that Earhart and Noonan were on a government-sanctioned mission to gather info on the Japanese. “No one was supposed to know about that,” Earhart responded.

A still-confused Amelia Earhart pulled out her compass but is left with more questions when it simply doesn’t work. Soon after, Janeway received a call from Voyager warning that other life-forms have been detected outside the cave and that a security team was being dispatched to investigate. Noonan heard this and grew angrier, demanding that they use their communications to contact the United States, and specifically, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was the first director of the FBI and held the position in 1937.

Outside the cave, weapons fire was heard. The team dispatched from Voyager was under attack. They all exited the cave to head over to Voyager when Noonan was hit by blaster fire. Janeway quickly cornered two attackers who were dressed in armored grey suits from head to toe. After disarming them, Janeway told the attackers that she is human and asked for an explanation. “We are human too,” said the attackers as they removed their headgear, explaining that they feared her and Voyager’s crew were members of an alien race called the Briori. Both sides agree to lay down their weapons and one of the attackers introduced himself as John Evansville.

Back at Voyager, Evansville accused Voyager of kidnapping the “37’s”–what him and his people who live on the planet call those found in the cryostasis chambers. He was also shocked to learn that they were actually alive. Evansville and his people had not entered the cave or “shrine” as they call it, in generations. The reason? Earhart and the other abductees were part of a group of 300 humans who were kidnapped from Earth in 1937 by the Briore. After being brought to the planet in the Delta quadrant, they were held as slaves and forced to do hard labor.

The humans eventually led a revolt against the Briore, killing them and seizing their weapons and technology. It seems the Earhart, Noonan and the others discovered by Voyager’s crew were never awakened after being abducted and probably slept through the slave revolt. Evansville explained that the 37’s are his ancestors and that 15 generations later, over 100,000 of the 37’s descendants occupy 3 human cities on the planet. The Briore never returned.

Captain Janeway asked if the interstellar starship used by the Briore to abduct the humans from Earth in 1937 still existed, but is disappointed to learn that it’s been destroyed. This crushed her and the Voyager crew because they were hoping to use it to return home.

Evansville explains to Janeway that life is great on their planet and that they’ve built 3 beautiful cities. This planted the idea in Janeway and her crew that maybe they should stay and continue their lives on this planet among fellow humans. In Janeway’s Captain’s log, she described the civilization as “thriving and sophisticated” and says her experience touring the cities was “amazing.” Now, the dilemma is whether to give her crew the choice to stay on the planet that reminded them of Earth or force them to continue on a risky journey that may never end. Janeway and her first officer make the decision to continue toward home but leave the decision of whether to stay or not up to each individual crew member.

In Voyager’s mess hall, Earhart and the other abductees sat around a table for a meal made by the ship’s cook, Neelix. Using the food replicator, he prepared them pot roast and green beans with jello for dessert. Noonan, who quickly recovered from his wounds and toured the human cities of the planet, said life there seems better than on Earth–indicating that he wouldn’t mind staying. The farmer, whose rusted pickup truck led to this series of events, enthusiastically said that he could fulfill his dreams of building a large farm on the planet and is excited about the prospect of a new frontier. The Japanese soldier explained that there are many Japanese descendant on the planet and describes the civilization as a “paradise.”

Amelia Earhart, now a mythological and heroic figure in human history, isn’t sure what to do. Should she attempt to return to Earth aboard the starship Voyager? On the command deck, Earhart’s curiosity for flight is seen as her eyes lit up when exploring the ship’s many functions. A crew member informed her that Voyager can travel at warp 9.9 or 4 billion miles per second and easily hop from planet to planet. Earhart responded by asking if she could “take the ship out for a spin.”

Unsurprisingly, Amelia Earhart was enchanted by the idea of traveling through space and even learning to pilot Voyager. But ultimately, she saw the world that the descendants of the 37’s built as her home. This is where the Earhart mystery ended, and where her new life began. She decided to stay behind.

Not a single member of Voyager’s crew remained on the planet with the 37’s and among the civilization built by the generations of humans that followed them. Instead, they were willing to risk following Janeway on the seemingly never-ending journey home. Seven years, many casualties, and a few shortcuts later, Voyager would finally return to Earth.

Robin Seemangal has been reporting from the newsroom at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for the last two years for the Observer with by-lines also in Popular Science and Wired Magazine. He does in-depth coverage of SpaceX launches as well as Elon Musk’s mission to send humans to Mars. Robin has appeared on BBC, Russia Today, NPR‘s ‘Are We There Yet’ Podcast, and radio stations around the world to discuss space exploration.