Boldly Going In Search Of... The USS Enterprise | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Boldly Going In Search Of... The USS Enterprise

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The port side view of the USS Enterprise at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.
Chris Klimek
The port side view of the USS Enterprise at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.

It's possible to visit the National Air and Space Museum and never realize one of the most recognizable spaceships ever imagined is hidden down in the basement.

The Gemini VI capsule, from which Ed White made the first American spacewalk, in 1965, is right there on the ground floor. So is the Apollo 11 command module, from which Neil Armstrong left the first footprints on the moon in 1969. You could practically trip over those on the way in. But if you're interested in seeing a more iconic spacecraft — one that's inspired scientists to dream bigger than those familiar marvels of human ingenuity, you must boldly go where many, many people have gone before: to the gift shop.

And then down another escalator.

Then you see it, seeming to float on the horizon — it's in the back of the gift shop — expanding in your field of vision with each step. This is your voyage to the Starship Enterprise. That is, the original, now-49-year-old studio model of the famous ship, as featured in every episode of Star Trek's 1966-69 run. The versions of the series' episodes that stream on Netflix now have replaced their "practical" shots of this old model with modern, computer-generated visual effects. But even if you watch Star Trek with its original effects intact — as you can, if you own the Blu-rays — you don't get a sense of how big this object is. It's 11 feet across, only slightly smaller than my car.

Margaret Weitekamp, who curates the museum's Social and Cultural Dimensions of Spaceflight Collection, says Star Trek fans who make the pilgrimage to visit the model sometimes seem to experience a mix of emotions.

"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," she laughs. "I think sometimes they're also 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, and this is very clearly a 49-year-old studio model — not the Enterprise."

Production designer Matt Jeffries went through a number more traditional-looking proposals for what became the Enterprise before Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry selected its now-familiar, vaguely swan-like design.

"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," Weitekemp says, indicating the model with her thumb. "And Roddenberry flipped it over and said 'That's it.' We're so used to this profile and this image of the Enterprise, that has 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."

Roddenberry's uniquely optimistic 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. Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., says he was 9 or 10 when he discovered Star Trek in reruns.

"I was glued to it," Garvin recalls. "It was so imaginative. The characters — I like Spock. Kirk was the cool one for the girls, I guess. But the fact that there was an attempt to connect real physics with the ethics of exploring, you know, new frontiers, at the edge of what we could imagine — it was mesmerizing."

Garvin thinks the Enterprise belongs in the Air and Space Museum, along with all those real spacecraft.

"It really is a holy place to many of us," Garvin says. "You walk in, and there's the spare Viking lander — the first thing ever to land on another planet as a robot. You've got the model they filmed the show on. This is our tangible legacy to what we've done: Some of fiction, some of it real."

Like a lot of 49-year-olds who used to be on TV, the Enterprise has had some work done. The Smithsonian has performed three major restorations of the model since Paramount Studios shipped it to the museum, disassembled, in 1974. Five years had passed since NBC cancelled Star Trek, and the first Star Trek feature film was still five years in the future.

Eventually, there would be 12 movies (and counting) and four spinoff series. But that moment, Star Trek was deader than Mr. Spock at the end of The Wrath of Khan. Which might be how the Enterprise ended up at the Smithsonian.

"Very clearly, Paramount did not anticipate the universe that Trek became," Weitekemp says. "When the National Air and Space Museum contacted Paramount they were really looking for a prop to put at the end of the 'Life in the Universe' exhibit in the Arts and Industries building. [The National Air and Space Museum didn't open until 1976.] And so this was given to the museum as part of that exhibit to 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. Which is how the ship NASA had planned to call The Constitution went into the history books as... The Enterprise.

[Music: "Star Trek Theme (2009)" by Michael Giacchino from Star Trek Original Movie Soundtrack / "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" by Lou Reed from Transformer]

Photos: USS Enterprise

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