Enterprise: The First Space Shuttle

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The very last launch of NASA's space shuttle program is scheduled for Friday, when Atlantis will begin mission STS-135. The 135th mission will end the shuttle program after 35 years.

The U.S. space program would have never progressed as fast as it did without the race against the Soviets to the moon. As soon as Apollo 11 delivered astronauts to the lunar surface, NASA was asked to develop a new space program that would be more immediately useful and (most importantly) more cost-efficient. The Apollo program continued through mission 17 in 1972, but meanwhile engineers were developing a reusable spacecraft. It was a totally new concept, a vehicle tough enough to go into space, complete mission after mission, and land on earth with such little damage that it could be sent up again. Many companies worked on the various technologies necessary for such a craft. We didn't see the first space shuttle until 1976.

There were a total of six space shuttles. Atlantis, the last to fly, will be retired to a museum as will the recently-flown shuttles Endeavour and Discovery. Two shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were destroyed along with their crews in space tragedies. And the sixth space shuttle? That was the Enterprise.

NASA planned to name the first space shuttle Constitution, to commemorate the nation's bicentennial in 1976. But that changed between the announcement of the program in 1972 and the unveiling of the craft in 1976.

Photo by Alan Light.

Star Trek fan Bjo Trimble already had experience in mobilizing trekkers; she had spearheaded a fan campaign to save the original Star Trek series from cancellation in 1967. That effort stretched the show's run into a third year. Trimble organized Star Trek fans in a new campaign to name the first space shuttle Enterprise instead of Constitution. The White House received somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 letters urging the name change (although some estimates go as high as 200,000). I wrote one of those letters myself. President Gerald Ford spoke with NASA chief James Fletcher and said, "You know, I'm a little partial to the name Enterprise." Ford did not mention the letter-writing campaign, but instead referred to the fact that he served on a Navy ship that serviced the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Fletcher resisted the name change, but was overruled by the president. The shuttle would be named Enterprise.

In the "Star Trek" series, all ships were named after famous space shuttles of the past. So, in a paradoxical way, by naming a real-life shuttle after the Star Trek ship, NASA validated its plot line by providing an explanation for where the Enterprise name came from. If that makes perfect sense to you, congratulations, you're a true Star Trek fan.

"That is a fine looking wessel"

The names of the shuttles are used mainly outside of NASA. The first such vehicle was referred to as OV-101 (orbiter vehicle 101) by the space agency. However, the naming of the first shuttle was a coup for Star Trek fans and a public relations boon for the Star Trek franchise. At the official unveiling of the shuttle on September 17, 1976 at Rockwell's facility in Palmdale, California, most of the cast from the original Star Trek television series, as well as creator Gene Roddenberry, were honored guests.

The shuttle Enterprise made 13 flights in 1976 and 1977, none of them in orbit. There were eight captive flights with the shuttle on the back of a 747 (three with a crew aboard), and five test flights. Pictured is Commander (and Apollo 13 astronaut) Fred W. Haise Jr. and pilot C. Gordon Fullerton after an approach and landing test.

The original idea was to eventually retrofit the prototype for space flight and send it into orbit after the shuttle Columbia. However, design changes over the years made this idea more expensive than building a new shuttle from scratch. I recall vividly how disappointed I was when I found out the Enterprise would not go into space, and I imagined that everyone who fought to name the vehicle felt the same way. In 1978 and 1979, Enterprise was subjected to ground vibration tests. In the fall of 1979, parts of the Enterprise were removed to be reused on other shuttles. The rest became an exhibit. The vehicle toured Europe in 1983 and the U.S. in 1984. It was showcased at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans.

In either a stretch of the imagination or an exercise in wishful thinking, the shuttle Enterprise was featured in the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the movie, Commander Will Decker shows Lieutenant Ilia a display on the history of ships named Enterprise, which includes the space shuttle. In the TV series Deep Space 9, the shuttle appears as a model docked to the International Space Station in Caption Sisko's office.

If you haven't seen the Enterprise at the World's Fair, on tour, or in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum collection, you will be able to visit the Enterprise starting next year at New York City's Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum.

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July 5, 2011 - 5:48am
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