Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise to Boldly Go Back to the Workshop

A 49-year-old pop cultural artifact gets a much-needed restoration.

The Enterprise studio model was suspended from above while on display in the 80s and 90s. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)
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Paramount Pictures didn’t know what they were giving up 40 years ago when they donated the 135-inch studio model of the U.S.S. Enterprise—the fictional, 23rd century starship at the center of the groundbreaking science fiction series Star Trek—to the Smithsonian. Star Trek had been canceled after three seasons five years earlier; the first of the now 12 Trek motion pictures was still five years away. Though the first Star Trek convention had taken place in 1972, there was little reason to suspect the beloved but low-rated TV show—unique for its optimistic vision of a future where men and women of all races and ethnicities, not to mention non-humans, merrily travel the galaxies together “to seek out new life and new civilizations”—would blossom into a 50-year multimedia franchise, and a model for every organized fandom to follow. (The 48th anniversary of the first episode of Star Trek’s original air date was earlier this week.)

The model, which arrived damaged and in pieces, was initially hung as part of a “Life in the Universe” exhibit in the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building. The National Air and Space Museum, where the Enterprise has spent the 21st century thus far on display in a custom case in the basement of the gift shop, wouldn’t open for another two years.

The Enterprise studio model spent most of the years 2000-2014 on display in the basement of the museum's gift shop. (Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

Once NASM opened, the Enterprise spent most of the years between 1976 and 1999 suspended from the ceiling. As Margaret Weitekamp, curator of the Museum’s Social and Cultural Dimensions of Spaceflight Collection, explained to an audience of Trek loyalists at a public lecture last night, the model was initially regarded more as a piece of decor than as an object deserving of preservation and scholarship in its own right. That distinction influenced the approach taken during its most recent restoration, in 1991, which included a new paint job and detailing intended to help the model live up to the memories many visitors have of the starship they originally saw on tiny, primitive TV screens. This is different from trying to make the model look as authentic as possible, or closest to its condition when used in filming the TV show. The fan community has been critical of these efforts to improve the model’s appearance, Weitekamp said—and she sympathizes with their greivance.

Regardless of whether the Enterprise is more important as a symbol or as a tangible object, one thing is certain: The model was a TV prop built as cheaply as possible almost half a century ago.  It was never intended to be hung, and a series of X-rays taken in 1999 revealed stress fractures in the wood. The model has been displayed on a stand, as originally designed, since then.

Though it’s been restored three times already during its stay at the Smithsonian, it’s in need of a major overhaul to return it to something like its original status on the Starfleet duty roster, and that’s finally about to happen. After 13 years in the gift shop, NASM has removed the model from public view for restoration at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy center near Dulles International Airport in Virginia. The restoration is expected to take roughly 18 months. When the Enterprise returns to the National Mall, it will at last be given a spot on the downtown Museum’s ground floor. It's new home will be in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, which will remain open to the public as it is refurbished in preparation for NASM’s 40th anniversary celebrations in 2016.

(An earlier version of this post indicated the Enterprise studio model would be removed for restoration next week. As of September 12th, the model is no longer on public display.)

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