As the Museum is assessing the 11-foot studio model of the Star Trek starship Enterprise, we’re trying to provide occasional updates to the many fans of this iconic artifact of American culture. The shooting model, which has been in the Museum’s collection since 1974, was removed from public display in September 2014 in order to be assessed and prepared for exhibit in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, opening in July 2016. Right now, the Museum is completing a painstaking process of analyzing the model.
Notably, conserving the Star Trek starship Enterprise studio model has allowed some wonderful cooperation between different branches of the Smithsonian institution. In December 2014 and again in January 2015, Tangara Cross of the National Zoological Park arranged for Marilyn Small and Peter Flowers, two National Zoo registered veterinary technicians (and Star Trek fans), to come to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, to examine the model used in filming of the original Star Trek television series (1966–1969).
To give the Museum’s conservators a look inside the Enterprise model, Marilyn and Peter brought a portable radiography (x-ray) machine to the Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory, which is a behind-the-scenes work space at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport. Consisting of three pieces, the apparatus has an x-ray emitter that exposes a special digital photographic plate, which in turn communicates with a computer enabled with its own independent WiFi. But what really made it special was that this technology has also been used to examine zoo animals, even panda sensation, Bao Bao. (Talk about breaking the Internet! Consider combining the web power of Bao Bao and Star Trek!)
To organize the data, the radiology technicians/Star Trek fans first created a record for the “patient:”
Saucer as the “skull”
Secondary hull as the “body”
Nacelles as the “legs”
The x-ray apparatus produced images in a special format called “dicom” (which Peter explained, “makes a jpeg look like a pencil sketch”). To get each image, Peter and Marilyn worked with Engen Conservation Chair Malcolm Collum and Museum photographer Dane Penland to line up the radiography machine on one side of the artifact with the photographic plate positioned exactly opposite on the other side. They planned the overlapping images to provide a complete tricorder-like diagnostic of the model’s interior. As each image was shot, the digital plate communicated via WiFi with the laptop, capturing the image. To avoid a magnification effect, they positioned the plate as close to the body of the model as possible. They got the perfect exposure on the first try, based on Peter and Marilyn’s expert calculations comparing the probable density of the model versus the known density of biological specimens.
Working slowly, the participants planned the exposures to allow the images to be “stitched” together so conservators can get a more complete picture of the artifact. Our photographer, Dane, advised on how best to overlap the images so that they could be matched once the images had been taken back to a zoo computer to be processed. The composite image of the left nacelle shown here has been put back together by Museum conservator Ariel O’Connor. When printed at full size, it gives the conservators a clear map of the interior of the model, without disturbing any of the original structure. It’s worth noting how much the technology has improved since the last time the Enterprise model was x-rayed in the 1990s.
The x-ray process involved a lot of back and forth—literally. Marilyn, Peter, and Malcolm wore lead shielding to protect themselves during the x-ray shooting. For the rest of us, after backing away during each shot to avoid being unshielded inside the scatter range of the x-rays, we all rushed back to the monitor as the image appeared to see what was revealed. Immediately, we could see the light bulbs inside the model as well as finishing nails, electronics, and wiring. Some of the images were so clear that we could see the grain in the wood used to build the model! The results will help the conservation team to make clear decisions about next steps when assessing the structure of the model.
It deserves mention that the entire group showed tremendous restraint. The group held off on using any Star Trek puns or doing their Scotty impressions until well into the saucer section shooting. Hey, we take our work seriously but we’re fans too.
Margaret A. Weitekamp is a curator in the Museum’s Space History Department.
See more photos from this day and the latest on the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall renovation project.