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X-Ray Analysis of the Starship Enterprise

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When the National Air and Space Museum opened in 1976, the production model of the Starship Enterprise was prominently and dramatically displayed hanging at the entrance of “Life in the Universe” gallery.

Later, when that gallery closed, and the starship was moved to several other locations within the museum.


Star Trek Starship “Enterprise” Model on display in “Life In The Universe” gallery.

Star Trek Starship “Enterprise” Model on display in Flight and the Arts gallery.

Star Trek Starship “Enterprise” Model as it appeared in “Rocketry and Spaceflight” gallery.

Though these were dramatic displays, hanging the starship from the ceiling was not entirely favorable.  It had to be hung well above viewer’s heads, safely out of the reach of curious hands. From there, it could only be seen from below, which did not offer the best viewing, certainly not for loyal fans. In addition, hanging the starship left it at the mercy of accumulating dust and grime – a very serious issue in museums.

In fact, the starship had not been built to be hung. When filmed for the television series Star Trek, it rested upon a stand.  This stand, only 17 and a half high inches and ten and a quarter inches wide, seems scarcely substantial enough to support the eleven foot by five foot starship.

The original stand used during filming of the “Star Trek” television series.

By 1999, the starship had been hung, frequently moved, and re-hung for close to a quarter of a century. Museum staff responsible for caring for the starship determined that a close examination of the structure was required. Maryland QC Laboratories (MQC Labs, Inc.) at Aberdeen, Maryland, were contracted to do an X-Ray analysis of the starship, with special emphasis on possible stress at the attachment points, where the cables from which the starship was suspended were attached to the ship itself.

X-Ray Photograph from Saucer to Pylon Top

X-Ray Photograph from Saucer to Pylon Top

Port Nacelle, Top

X-Ray Photograph of Port Nacelle Top

X-Ray photograph of Hull, Starship Enterprise Model.

A composite of four X-Ray photographs showing the hull of the original Starship

After considerable discussion, museum staff decided not to hang the starship any more. Instead, a special case was built for it, and it now rests upon two stanchions specially built to hold it. The case protects the ship from dust, grime and fingerprints, while at the same time, presents the model at eye-level, so that the serious (and the merely curious) viewer can study it closely, and from all sides. Alongside the starship is the original stand it rested on, when filmed for the television show.

Starship “Enterprise” on display in the Museum Store.

Gregory K. H. Bryant is Museum Registrar in the Office of the Registrar at the Smithsonian, National Air and Space Museum.

To see the “Enterprise” Model on display, visit the lower level of the National Air and Space Museum Store at the National Mall Building in Washington, DC.

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10 thoughts on “X-Ray Analysis of the Starship Enterprise

  1. Utterly fascinating stuff.
    Especially the x-rays.

    For the first time, I feel like I can envision them building the filming model.

    I remember thinking on the first day I walked into the gallery in 1976, “Was it really designed for hanging like that? I wonder how much it weighs?”

    Didn’t stop me from lying on the floor and shooting pictures under it, though.

  2. I’m a long time follower of Star Trek. Perhaps not to the extent of its main fan club following, but I did schedule my life around it. Didn’t like the original series when I was young, but as an adult things changed.

    It’s amazing to me how many items in Star Trek then are realistic to our lives today. Like communicators, I mean cell phones.

    Do you know if their will be any further Star Trek series, or is that now an era gone by?

  3. It incorrectly assumed that the model was made of fiberglass. Instead the orig series filming model of the Enterprise was made mostly of vacuformed parts and rolled sheet metal for the nacelles. This was information I got directly from the the only living propmaker that worked on it. He worked at Production Models Shop, the place that built it. Their work there was generally work for companies that wanted concept products prototyped. They even worked on making prototype Polaroid camera bodies for evaluation. They did little very work for TV or movies.

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  5. Actually Tom the model is mostly wood.
    The saucer is vacuform plastic over a wood frame, the neck is built up wood, the secondary hull is built like a barrel with appx. 1 inch thick slats of wood over a series of bulkheads. The warp support pylons are solid wood, the warp engines are wood to just behind the pylon and are sheet metal on a wood frame beyond that point with a solid wood end cap. As a side note, the model is built to 1:87 scale (HO Railroad scale).
    As part of the 1991 restoration team, I can say that it is a really nice model to have worked on.

  6. September 8, 2016 marks the 50th Anniversary of what is now universally recognized as a ground breaking new Sci Fi masterpiece: Star Trek. I, for one, cannot imagine a finer tribute to that momentous event then that our beloved original “Grey Lady” be fully reconditioned to her original Production Series appearance; able to greet millions of visitors for her next fifty years. Fortunately, another long lost Star Trek Icon, the original “Galileo” Shuttle has been finally rediscovered and professionally restored. Doesn’t the quintessential example of Star Trek deserve the same? There exists such a growing on-line movement to accomplish just such a noble goal. I encourage everyone to Google “The Enterprise Restoration Project”. We can do this everybody!!

  7. Pingback: Happy 50th Birthday to the original Starship Enterprise! | The Fog of Ward

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