In 1976, at age 11, I was one of the estimated 200,000-400,000 dedicated fans who wrote letters begging President Gerald Ford to rename the prototype of America’s space shuttle orbiters Enterprise, after the starship that captured our imaginations in the original Star Trek television series. Although I could not have put it into words at the time, the original name, Constitution, seemed a bit nationalistic and provincial in nature, while Enterprise suggested a grand and worthwhile mission. The fans won, although President Ford claimed his fondness for the name came from the aircraft carrier Enterprise, and on September 17, 1976, at Rockwell’s Air Force Plant 42 assembly facility in Palmdale, California, the newly-renamed shuttle was rolled out with great ceremony.
Along with series creator Gene Roddenberry, most of the major cast of Star Trek was present for the event. Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei and Walter Koenig all stood there with bright smiles in their wide-lapelled 1970s clothing. It was a sunny and beautiful day, one filled with the promise of an exciting new chapter in NASA and humanity’s history.
The shuttle would be the first American space vehicle flown without first having had an unmanned test. It would be exciting for this reason alone, besides its unique design and all of the other reasons. For the initial tests, Enterprise flew piggybacked onto a specially converted 747 carrier aircraft called the SCA. The first time she disengaged and flew free from her mounting was on August 12, 1977, which was also my 12th birthday. It was a great summer to be 12, with Star Wars in theaters and a new shuttle soaring in the sky (and my Yankees midway through a season that would end with them winning the World Series). Yet only a few months later, on October 26, 1977, our beloved and hard won Enterprise flew for the very last time. After all, a prototype vehicle with no engines or heat shield had its limitations. Ironically, the shuttle named after the beloved starship that explored the final frontier would become the only one of the fleet that never made it to space.
She had, however, achieved her purpose. The testing phase now complete, NASA was free to build the Columbia (the first shuttle to achieve Earth orbit) and four sister ships over the next decade. One ship, the Challenger, arrived in 1982 but blew up with teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard on the unforgettable morning of January 28, 1986. Endeavour, the final shuttle, was built as a replacement in 1991.
Throughout the entire shuttle era, the connection to Star Trek was never far in the background. Many of the astronauts, technicians and project managers were avowed fans, and the makers of Star Trek were great supporters of the space program. The Enterprise prototype appeared in the recreation room in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, docked to a model of the International Space Station in Benjamin Sisko’s office in Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and was shown in the opening credits of the show Enterprise each week (although it was actually footage of another shuttle with the name Enterprise digitally superimposed). One of the great innovations of the entire shuttle program was the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), a jetpack like device with 24 nitrogen thrusters that astronauts could wear to operate tether-free outside the vehicle. A similar device appears in Star Trek-The Motion Picture, as does a Vulcan shuttle. When Challenger exploded in 1986, that year’s film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was dedicated to the lost astronauts: “The cast and crew of Star Trek wish to dedicate this film to the men and women of the spaceship Challenger whose courageous spirit shall live to the 23rd century and beyond”.
It would be two and one half years until the next shuttle flight. During this time, beginning in 1987, Star Trek-The Next Generation kept the hope of peaceful space exploration alive in the public consciousness.
Now, as the immediate future of manned space exploration is in doubt, some commentators point to the shuttle as an expensive, unreliable and deadly failure—a blemish after the promise of Apollo. This could not be farther from the truth. Besides the achievements in terms of scientific knowledge, each day peoples’ lives are improved or saved by some specific development from the space shuttle program. Some of its legacies include better baby formulas based on the nutritional supplements created for the astronauts, an artificial heart that works on the principles of the shuttle’s fuel pump, a hand held cutter developed for the program but now used to extricate accident victims from crashed automobiles, various anti-oxidizing lubricants that keep our machinery functioning, types of insulation that keep us warm and prevent injury, image processing and video stabilization software that help us solve crimes and edit our digital photos, and even a stronger type of fishing net that more effectively puts food on our tables. From a space science perspective, the most visible and obvious legacies are the International Space Station and the Hubble Telescope.
The Enterprise prototype, previously stored at the Smithsonian’s Dulles Airport hangar facility, is now on its way to a new home at the U.S.S. Intrepid Museum in New York City. This is apropos, as Intrepid itself has been featured three times as the name of vehicles in Star Trek. For the first couple of years, until a special housing facility is built beside the ship, it will sit atop the aircraft carrier’s deck and be visible even across the Hudson as a proud reminder of our legacy in space. Taking her place in the Smithsonian is the Discovery, the most utilized orbiter vehicle. The remaining vessels will be distributed around the country.
The advertising tagline for the first Star Trek movie was “The human adventure is just beginning”. Starting at roughly the same time, the space shuttle program was a bold and worthwhile illustration of that fact. As we now pause and catch our breath before the next step in our reach for the heavens, we must never lose sight of the bright destiny before us as an innovative and ambitious species. The Enterprise shuttle, gleaming in the sunshine with the skyscrapers of New York behind it, will be a wonderful reminder.