MS. REBECCA SHEIR
For our next story in today's Wild Cards show, we'll put on some clothes and do a favorite destination for tourists and residents alike, The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The museum is home to a bunch of historic space craft, like the Gemini VI capsule, from which Ed White emerged to take the very first American spacewalk in 1965.
MR. ED WHITE
This is the greatest experience I've -- it's just tremendous.
And there's the Apollo 11 command module, from which Neil Armstrong left the first footprints on the moon in 1969.
MR. NEIL ARMSTRONG
That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
But if you want to see what may be one of the most iconic space craft in history you have to boldly go where many have gone before -- to the museum's gift shop. Chris Klimek tells us why.
MR. CHRIS KLIMEK
It's possible to visit the National Air and Space Museum and never realize that one of the most recognizable spaceships ever imagined is hidden down in the basement.
MS. MARGARET WEITEKAMP
I'd like to see a little more attention drawn to it. There is a giant sign at the top of the escalator that points you to it, although I think people are more drawn to the one that says sale.
This is Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the museum's space history department.
Specifically, I’m in charge of what we call our Social and Cultural Dimensions of Spaceflight Collection.
Which means both memorabilia of the actual space program and also space science fiction objects.
The Enterprise rests in the 360-degree case at the back of the gift shop, but you see if floating on the horizon as you step off the turbo lift -- escalator. You have to approach it from a distance, letting it expand in your field of vision with each step. What it reminds me of is the sequences in the first two, I think, "Star Trek" movies where there's this long introduction of the ship, as though it's the star of the movie and there's swelling music.
But this isn't the big screen Enterprise. It's the original, from the "Star Trek" TV show. And when you watch one of those episodes, as aired between 1966 and 1969, you do not get a sense of how big this object is, 11 feet long. It's only a little smaller than my Corolla.
There are two labels here and one is for the fictional Enterprise. So we have a label for the Enterprise and how big she -- as the ship in the nautical tradition they would have said she -- is. And then also there's a label for the studio model. This is essentially two objects in one. This is the Enterprise. And then this is the 50-year-old prop that was used to film the idea of the Enterprise for the first time.
As with any illusion, it's the idea that matters. The prop is just a means to an end, which accounts for the mixed emotions some fans feel when they see the Enterprise model.
I think sometimes they're overwhelmed by the sense of getting to see the piece of the one true cross. The one prop that is part of the original series television show.
I think sometimes they're also very disappointed because they have a vision of the Enterprise from watching it on a cathode ray tube in Technicolor in the late 1960s or in reruns.
It's a vision that was literally one sided. The model was only detailed on its starboard side because the other one had wires running into it to supply power to the lights mounted within. Designer Matt Jeffries went through a lot of more traditional-looking proposals before "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry selected the now-familiar, vaguely swan-like design.
And the famous story is that he came in and Jeffries was holding up this little balsa wood model to show him the shape, and it was this shape -- upside down. And Roddenberry flipped it over and said, okay, that's it. And we're so used to this profile, this image of the Enterprise, which has then spawned dozens and dozens of other ships in the Trek universe, that it's hard to picture that it could have looked like anything else.
That vision of the 23rd century, as imagined from the 1960s, had a profound influence on many of the people who run the U.S. space program today.
MR. JIM GARVIN
I think "Star Trek" inspired many of us in the game, you know, as we started it to say, okay, we're doing Apollo, pretty darn hard -- people to the moon -- but look what we could have.
This is Jim Garvin, the chief scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
I was like glued to it. I mean, I was 10, 9 years old. It was so imaginative. The characters, I mean, I like Spock, but, you know, everyone likes their…
Kirk was the cool one for the girls, I guess. And the fact that there was an attempt to connect real physics with the ethics of exploring new frontiers, at the edge of what we could imagine it being like. It was mesmerizing.
And he thinks the Enterprise belongs in the Air and Space Museum, alongside all those, you know, real spacecraft.
It's like a shrine at the Air and Space Museum. It really is. I mean, you know, a holy place to many of us. You walk in, there's the spare Viking lander, the first thing ever to land on another planet as a robot. You have the model they filmed the show on. This is our tangible legacy to what we've done, some of fiction, some of it real.
Back at that holy place the Enterprise is looking pretty good these days. The Smithsonian has conducted three major restorations of the model since it arrived disassembled in crates almost 40 years ago.
It really does always look a little bit like it's suspended or flying. And we have it standing on a stand because that was really originally how it was built to work. And the museum, for years, hung the object and then when we did some research into the wooden structure of this core model, they realized that there were stress fractures in the wood.
And they decided to go back to the original system, which was to have it on a stand.
The final episode of "Star Trek" aired a few months before Armstrong took his one giant leap for mankind. A decade would pass before the first of the now 12 "Star Trek" films was released, almost two before the next generation became the first of four spinoff shows. But in 1969 "Star Trek" was deader than Mr. Spock at the end of the "The Wrath of Khan." And it stayed dead, a lot longer than Spock did, which is probably how the Enterprise ended up here.
Very clearly, Paramount did not anticipate the universe that Trek became. When the National Air and Space Museum contacted Paramount they were really looking for a prop to put at the end of a "Life in the Universe" exhibit that was on display in the Arts and Industries building because this building that we're standing in didn't exist until 1976. And so this was given to the museum as a part of that exhibit in order to really illustrate what it might look like when people went into space. But it was given, not loaned, and I don't think they had any idea what they were giving away.
They might've started to figure it out a few years later. After a letter-writing campaign by "Star Trek" fans, and a personal intervention from President Gerald Ford, NASA was persuaded to change the name of the very first Space Shuttle prototype, which is how the ship they had planned to call The Constitution went into the history books as The Enterprise. I'm Chris Klimek.
You can check out the Starship Enterprise for yourself. Just swing by the National Air and Space Museum gift shop any day of the year except Christmas.
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's, Jonathan Wilson and Emily Berman, along with reporters Chris Klimek, Clare Fieseler and Jennifer Strong. WAMU's managing editor of news is Memo Lyons. Metro Connection's managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Our intern is Steven Yenzer.
Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website. Our theme song, "Every Little Bit Hurts" is from the album "Title Tracks" by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings record company. You can find all the music we use each week on our website, MetroConnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song.
And if you missed part today's show, you can stream the whole thing on our website, by clicking the "This Week On Metro Connection" link. You can also subscribe to our podcast there or find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and the NPR news app. We hope you can join us next week when we'll explore the D.C. neighborhood of Shaw. We'll revisit the highs and lows of this historic area and explore the many ways it's changing. We'll take a bite out of Shaw's rapidly growing restaurant scene. And we'll visit a local barbershop where residents have been getting a shave and shooting the breeze for 100 years.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1
People don't go through life with so many true friends. And, you know, you have to cherish that.
I'm Rebecca Sheir, and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 News.
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