The Mission to Restore the Original Starship Enterprise

The beloved 1960s studio model stars in Building Star Trek, a documentary premiering on Smithsonian Channel this Sunday

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Boldly going where no curatorial object has gone before. Courtesy of Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Captain's Log, Stardate 27629.2. The USS Enterprise has arrived on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., disassembled and in need of serious spacedock repair.

This isn’t the start of a scrapped “Star Trek” script. Five years after the original series had been canceled and five years before the first of 13 (and counting) Star Trek movies hit the theaters, Paramount Studios donated the “Star Trek” Starship Enterprise studio model to Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, which at the time was housed in the Arts and Industries Building.

The studio didn’t know what it was giving up. This was March 1, 1974, a moment in space and time before Gene Roddenberry’s gospel of an optimistic tomorrow had spread beyond a small but dedicated fan base. The early Trekkers who tuned in to watch Captain James T. Kirk and company “seek out new life and new civilizations” each week, had launched a letter-writing campaign that helped win the show a third season on-air after Paramount was ready to pull the plug at two. Three years after the series was officially canceled in ’69, they organized their own 3,000-strong fan convention. But as far as the studio was concerned, by the early ’70s, the Enterprise had flown her last mission.

The NCC-1701 starship—designed by “Star Trek”’s art director Walter "Matt" Jefferies—was crated and in studio storage when real-life Apollo astronaut and the museum's director, Michael Collins, inquired if Paramount would be open to giving the production model to the museum. The studio was, and not just as a loan, but as a gift.

In 1974, the 11-foot, approximately 200-pound spacecraft, made out of blow-molded plastic and wood and painted light gray, with a slight green tint, sporting yellow and red decals, landed at the museum in three boxes. Peeling duct tape patched together holes in the model’s hull.

At the time, there was no such thing as a space history department at the museum. After all, it was not that long before that the museum was simply the National Air Museum. Only after the U.S. and the Soviet Union burned rocket fuel and popular imagination during the space race in the 1950s and 1960s did the museum’s name expand to include space.

The department of astronautics dealt with the Enterprise. It was run by a former rocket engineer and U.S. Navy test pilot named Fred C. Durant III. During his 15 years at Smithsonian, Durant embarked on a mission to preserve the fledgling history of space travel, acquiring all but one of the spacecrafts that the U.S. used to travel into space and to the moon from 1961 to 1972.

Durant was also a friend of Roddenberry’s. Just like the other artifacts he collected, he made a home for the spaceship that traveled beyond light speed powered by way of a matter/antimatter reactor. He paid the cost of crating and shipping the studio model to the museum and oversaw the ship’s first restoration, when it infamously got a “turkey red” paint coat.

When the building for the National Air and Space Museum opened on the National Mall two years later, the Enterprise came along. It was first used at the end of the “Life in the Universe” exhibition to illustrate what manned space travel might look like one day. The ship was attached to wires and hung from the ceiling. But the wooden frame of the model was never intended to be kept in that position for long.

While “Star Trek” began its first renaissance through the success of its burgeoning movie franchise, the studio model pulled what fans might call a SS Botany Bay. Like the "sleeper ship" under the command of Khan Noonien Singh, which drifted through deep space, the model settled into a quiet existence, moving through several displays and getting touch ups by the curatorial team in ’84 and ’91.

In 2000, the ship was docked in the basement of the museum at the gift shop in a custom display case. Margaret Weitekamp, who curates the museum's social and cultural dimensions of spaceflight collection, says the act was intended to save the spaceship “from Indiana Jones-style deep storage.” But fans didn’t understand that. Trekkers, whose population had multiplied like Tribbles as Star Trek expanded through Next GenerationDeep Space Nine and Voyager (with the prequel, Enterprise, just around the corner), were concerned the ship was suffering structurally and aesthetically.

Weitekamp, who inherited the curatorial responsibility for the Enterprise in 2004, was concerned too. She was beginning to see cracking in the paint that might suggest structural cracks in the body of the model itself. But she was reluctant to move the ship from its current space unless she knew there was a better place for it.

The visible sagging of the engine pods triggered a formal assessment of the ship in 2012. Then a happy coincidence occurred: the need to repair the ship coincided with a gift from Boeing, a two-year renovation of its Milestones of Flight Hall, located straight through the entrance of the museum. The studio model would have a place to go after its repairs—it would become one of the iconic pieces that marked the history of aviation and space travel.

In 2014, the Enterprise went off view to undergo its extensive repairs. The plan was to unveil the vessel during the debut of the renovated hall at the museum’s 40th anniversary in July 2016. The date coincided, purely by luck, with a bigger anniversary for “Star Trek:” the show’s 50th anniversary on September 8th.

Weitekamp assembled a team of experts to treat the ship and also opened the conversation up to the fans, asking if anyone had any information on the studio model. As she herself did extensive research and dug into Smithsonian’s records on the Enterprise, she began to notice a curious thing about the ship. When people were disappointed with the treatment of the Enterprise, going all the way back to 1974, they tended to refer to it as “she.”

Using the Naval convention of referring to ships as feminine, something that “Star Trek” itself did, fans would write in and say something like “she doesn't look good”  or “she is not well cared for.”

But when the museum would answer the letters, Weitekamp says, the museum would say “it.” “There's some overlap, but some real distinction between the physical body of the model and the character that is this beloved character that's a part of the ‘Star Trek’ franchise,” she says. It was something that she really wanted to explore, how the Enterprise was both a working studio model and a star.

So her team worked through careful minutiae to restore the ship back to how it looked around August or September of 1967, when the studio got its last shots of the ship for the show (the third season used recycled footage).

Documentarians followed the extensive restoration process. The final product, Building Star Trek, is set to premiere this Sunday on the Smithsonian Channel. Elliott Halpern, an executive producer on the show, got his first look at the model before much work had been done. He had watched the original series religiously as a boy. It was the first thing, he says, that he ever saw in color. While his folks had a black-and-white TV set, he had a neighbor with a color TV down the block. Each week, he and his friends would make the pilgrimage to the neighbor’s house and watch the adventures in technicolor.

Halpern won’t forget the first time he saw the ship in person in the conservation lab. “You're walking toward it and you think it's a prop, but I had this really emotional response to it, like, I wasn't prepared for it. Like, holy cow that's it,” he says. Still, during the restoration process, he was a little bemused to see the ship treated with the kind of care that real-world objects might be given.

“On one level you think, well why is it that we're elevating a prop from a 20th century TV show? Why are we treating it with such care?” he says. “But the more I thought about it, the more I realized in a way all of these items, whether it’s the Venus de Milo or the roof of the Sistine Chapel, they also were and are central venerated objects for pop culture. I really think you can argue that so is the Enterprise.”

When it comes to making a documentary about “Star Trek,” Halpern admits, finding a fresh way in isn’t easy. The show is beloved enough that if you name it, chances are it already exists. (Klingon Skull Stew, anyone?) But the idea of creating a story around the curatorial perspective offered a new entry point. Throughout the documentary, there are also vignettes about people putting “Star Trek” science and technology into practice today, such as doctors competing for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE and a physicist working on the first-ever tractor beam.

The tractor beam is the brainchild of David Grier, a professor of physics at New York University. Though he wouldn’t consider it an invention, so much as a discovery. His team was working on an experiment to use a light wave to push something, and instead, the beam pulled it. Having seen every broadcast episode of “Star Trek” at least once, Grier realized that he was watching the fundamental principle of a tractor beam at work.

“Star Trek” gave him the language to understand the phenomenon taking place in front of him. “A huge part of making a discovery is recognizing that you've made one,” he says. “In the world around us, so many things happen all the time that are remarkable and counterintuitive. Who knows, they could even overturn centuries of received wisdom. But only if you recognize what you are seeing is weird.”

Office hours in Grier’s class often are spent watching a clip from a “Star Trek” episode. It wasn’t, he says, like the franchise invented the wheel. In fact, the opposite. The writers borrowed ideas from pulp fiction and radio dramas of the 1920s and ’30s. The tractor beam, for example, was first described in a 1930s book called Spacehounds of IPC. What “Star Trek” did was integrate the ideas into a technological universe, creating a fabric where this kind of innovation would be completely expected. That, he says, paired with the show’s optimistic storylines, created an aspirational tomorrow that gave the show its legs, and is what makes people so invested in the fate of a studio model.

The Air and Space Museum debuted the Enterprise in July for its 40th anniversary. In attendance were Rod Roddenberry, Gene’s son, and Adam Nimoy, son of the late Leonard Nimoy, who brought the Vulcan science officer Mr. Spock to life. They will be coming back soon for the three-day bash celebrating “Star Trek”’s 50th at the museum next week, joined by people like Betty Jo Trimble, who spearheaded the campaign to renew the original series for that third season.

Since July, anyone who passes through the Milestones of Flight Hall can see the newly restored vessel. Often, the digital display adjacent to it plays the show’s ’60s theme song. On one side facing the entrance to the museum, visitors can check out the camera-ready Enterprise they got to know so well on the show. But they can also see the back side, which was never decorated, and is shown with wires coming out to illustrate its function as a working studio model.

For Weitekamp, she said she knew they’d succeeded with their curatorial mission when they first turned the internal lights on again.

“People came around the corner and saw the model all lit up, and unconsciously almost everybody switched to calling the model ‘she,’” says Weitekamp. “‘She looks beautiful. Look at her. I just thought there we go, we've got it. The character is back.”

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