Early on the morning of March 1, 2004, a small band of preservation specialists consisting of Anne McCombs, Steve Kautner, and Ed Mautner walked into the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. There was but a single artifact in that huge hangar — OV-101, Space Shuttle Test Vehicle, Enterprise. The hangar was scheduled to open to the public on October 20, 2004. We had eight months to clean the exterior and interior; repair and repaint damage to the faux tiles that covered the nose, belly, vertical stabilizer, and rudder; then strip and repaint the center fuselage and payload bay doors. There we stood with buckets of water, gallon jugs of Amway LOC, which was recommended by NASA and their contractor United Space Alliance (USA), boxes of cotton rags, and a few ladders that would only elevate us 3-3.5 meters (10-12 feet) above the ground. The size and scope of our task was truly daunting as Enterprise was 37 meters (122 feet) long with a wingspan of 24 meters (78 feet) and a vertical stabilizer that topped out at nearly 18 meters (60 feet) above the floor.
Enterprise was originally planned to be an orbiter but was never fully outfitted for spaceflight. In 1977, it served first as a test vehicle atop a modified 747 in a series of drop and glide tests from about 7,620 meters (25,000 feet). When its primary test programs ended in 1979, it languished and its appearance began to deteriorate. In 1983 it was refurbished with a fresh coat of paint and new markings for the 1983 Paris Air Show and the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans. NASA transferred Enterprise to the National Air and Space Museum in 1985 where it was stored outdoors for two years and in a non-climate-controlled hangar for 17 years. During this time it became dirty and its paint continued to deteriorate. After it came to the Museum, Enterprise continued to be a test bed for NASA. They performed launch vibration tests, facility test checks, arresting barrier, and emergency crew egress tests. These last tests scarred the paint on the forward fuselage and payload bay doors. Our job was to restore it to its former pristine appearance.
The ladders made the decision of where to start easy — hit the low hanging fruit — landing gear, wheel wells, and the belly. As the month progressed we received high lift equipment which gave access to most of the top portions of Enterprise. We also received an additional member, Tony Carp, to clean and repair the vertical stabilizer and rudder. Tony also coordinated the removal of the OMS (Orbital Maneuvering System) pods, which were sent back to the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility for restoration. Once finished with the exterior, we cleaned the cockpit, payload bay, and aft power plant bay.
Our next task was to scrape and sand off the deteriorated paint on the center fuselage and payload bay doors, an area measuring over 372 square meters (4,000 square feet). We did this from scaffolding erected on June 17th. This structure enclosed and bridged Enterprise, allowing us to safely reach all of the upper areas. With the clock ticking, additional members were allocated on August 9th to do the final sanding, scraping, and paint prep, which we finished on September 2nd.
Our donated aerospace paint and primer arrived September 17. Due to the space hangar’s filtration system and health and safety concerns we had to use rollers and apply the paint between 5:30 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. PPG-DeSoto, the paint donor, provided an additive that “flowed” the rolled-on paint to give a smooth, sprayed-on appearance. We finished the prep, priming, and white top coat in the wee hours of September 29. The scaffolding came down the next day and we were left with just our original team of four plus two part-time volunteers to remove masking; do final clean-up and equipment stowage; touch up many of the polyurethane foam faux tiles; and restore the markings, “United States,” NASA “Worm” logo, and the name Enterprise on the forward payload bay doors.
Long before work began, several curatorial decisions were made. First, Enterprise did not need a full restoration. It was structurally intact and had no signs of serious corrosion. So it would be cleaned, signs of corrosion or deterioration noted, and deteriorated paint and markings would be replaced. The second decision was to return it to its appearance in 1985. To achieve this we carefully traced all of the markings before paint removal began. When we had sanded through the top layer of paint we discovered earlier markings similar to those of 1985, but with slightly different shape, location, and color shades. We traced and made notes of these for future reference. Once repainted, we retraced the markings in pencil then hand-painted them as had been done originally. While doing this a contract crew was assembling the barriers around Enterprise in preparation for the “Grand Opening” just days away. We finished clean-up and detailing on October 18, 2004.
While we never let our eyes slip from our target date, there were interesting diversions that made a challenging project pretty enjoyable. We were tasked to assist NASA and USA in several of their planned visits to inspect or work on Enterprise. One day, Col. Joe Engle, one of Enterprise’s command test pilots, came to visit his old craft, inquire about our work, and congratulate us on our efforts. Another highlight was a visit from Col. Pamela Melroy, USAF. Col. Melroy was an Air Force test pilot and would become a two-mission space shuttle pilot (STS-92 and 112), and mission commander (STS-120). We met her while she was still a member of the Shuttle Columbia accident investigation team. We escorted her through Enterprise and she also expressed pleasure with our efforts.
The Enterprise project was grand in scope; interesting and exciting every day; and very rewarding in terms of personal gratification. Our small crew worked without a budget, and with limited resources, personnel, and time. For so many reasons, I recall looking forward to getting in to work on it every day. It was an exciting environment that literally put us on a stage where the visitors were always viewing us from barriers at the front of the hangar and from the hangar overlook. And when the scaffolding was assembled, there was the ever-present element of danger. Everyday, several times a day, we had to free climb 9-12 meters (30-40 feet) straight up the rungs to the platforms next to or over the shuttle. Once on top, we could attach our safety harness tethers to the scaffold structure. In eight months we had only one injury. One of our members slipped off the top of the payload bay doors. Due to the harness and tether, he suffered only a banged knee. Our constant discussions about safety and the use of fall protection certainly paid dividends.
During our days working on Enterprise we received several recurring questions about it from docents and visitors: is it real and did it go into space? What does it look like inside and will the Museum let visitors walk through it? Well, it is quite “real.” It was the first shuttle of the first batch or “block” of three and with the demise of Challenger and Columbia, it is the sole survivor of that block. Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour constitute the second block of shuttles. However, as Enterprise was never fully fitted-out to be an orbiter, the payload bay is a maze of structure and framework that poses too many hazards to permit public entry. The cockpit, bare of instrumentation, is very small and it would be difficult to route the more than one million visitors who might wish to enter it each year. Furthermore, the National Air and Space Museum has not in the past opened accessioned aircraft or spacecraft for public entry due to preservation concerns. For all of these reasons the Museum decided not to permit access into Enterprise.
On the morning of October 19, 2004, members of the press began to arrive to photograph, video, and write about the opening of the John S. McDonnell Space Hangar and its most prominent artifact, the Space Shuttle Enterprise. The public got its first glimpse the following day. The space hangar and Enterprise were received with praise and excitement by NASA and Museum staff, the media, and the visiting public. In addition, our small team received one of the two prestigious Peer Awards presented by the Museum for 2004. Was it a rewarding project? You bet.
Ed Mautner is a preservation specialist in the Collections Division of the National Air and Space Museum.