The USS Enterprise Goes in for Major Refit

Back in September, The filming model of the Starship Enterprise was taken off display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. The purpose of this was for the model to undergo a thorough evaluation and restoration to ensure that future generations can see this iconic piece of not only Television history, but also pop culture as well.

The constitution-class USS Enterprise filming model, designed by the late great Matt Jeffries turned 50 years old on December 29th, 2014, and hasn’t had a proper restoration in nearly 25 years, and that 1991 restoration has been a major point of contention for millions of Trek fans as the paint scheme does not reflect the model in its original 1964 state.

The USS Enterprise Goes in for Major Refit

In a series of interviews with from Trek Core, going back to the Fall, Dr. Margaret Weitekamp, curator of the Air and Space Museum’s spaceflight collection has let it be known that this restoration will be handled with the utmost care. Dr. Weitekamp will be overseeing the Enterprise project over the next two years.

“If there’s any one piece in the hall (Milestones of flight) that tells the broader cultural story of imagination and inspiration, I couldn’t think of anything better than the original Enterprise studio model. As the curator for the Enterprise model, I had been looking for several years for an opportunity to give it some refurbishment and to take a good look at its condition. The model hasn’t actively been worked on since 1991; I wanted another look at the paint, another look at the structure. It’s in pretty good shape for being almost fifty years old, but studio models are notoriously built exactly as cheaply as possible to get the shots the film crews want. It was not built to be a museum piece, but for a specific function within the television world.“

It should be noted that the model was constructed in 1964 for around $600.00, not including labor.  In the months since September, Dr. Weitekamp says they have had a good opportunity to examine the model and its current status:

“That has really given our chief curator time to really get a very close look at the model and has allowed us to really narrow in on issues of paint, issues of structure, and to start planning in which directions our conservation efforts are going to go. We really are thinking of this as conservation of – as of this week – a fifty-year old object. December 29th was fiftieth anniversary of its delivery to Desilu back in 1964, and it’s a particularly opportune moment to come back to the physical model and to think about it very specifically.”

The Museum has been examining the model from all angles, even using x-rays to look at the imperfections in it and getting a detailed analysis of how the old girl is holding up on her golden Anniversary. One thing noticed when using ultraviolet photography is the tiny cracks that show up in the paint. This is called, “Traction Cracking,” and is caused by shrinkage of the model due to its age.

The USS Enterprise Goes in for Major Refit
Ultraviolet photographic image showing the, “Traction Cracking,” on the saucer of the USS Enterprise filming model.

Of the x-rays, Dr. Weitekamp has this to say:

“It was really interesting. You can get a good sense of the interior; all of the little penny nails and things like that. I’m excited to get some of that imagery back. It comes in very large files that are specific to the scanning system that they have; they are in the process of converting them to a more standardized image file that we can use when working with the model. One of our photographers is excited to be able to knit those X-rays together to give us some large-scale swaths of the structure all in one view. That’s something that’s pending and that we’ll have available to us down the road.”

One major point of concern with the condition of the model it the fact that the nacelle struts have started to sag. The model originally was built to be supported centrally from the bottom. That is how it was filmed. When the Smithsonian got it in 1974, they suspended it from the ceiling by the nacelles, and the back of the saucer, causing strain on the frame. In 2000 the museum had a special case constructed to better display, protect and preserve the Enterprise.

The USS Enterprise Goes in for Major Refit
The model’s original position in the Smithsonian, hanging from the ceiling. Not ideal.


“We’ve been doing inspections over the years, and of course the fan community keeps us aware of the condition of the model. We’ve been seeing some aging and cracking in the paint, and I’m a little concerned with some structural issues. The design of the Enterprise as a ship is that it looks like it can’t easily exist in Earth’s gravity; I had a very good conversation with Mike Okuda who was telling me that he’s never had a model of the Enterprise that hasn’t had some sort of similar issues due to gravity. At some point, things just start to sag. There’s a little bit of separation in the nacelles that I’m concerned about, and we’re going to take a look and how best that can be addressed.”

The USS Enterprise Goes in for Major Refit
Display case constructed for the model from 2000-2014.

Dr. Weitekamp has gathered an assortment of experts from the Star Trek universe to consult on the models condition, its preservation and its future. Those experts are none other than Andrew Probert, Michael Okuda, Rick Sternbach and Doug Drexler, true GIANTS in the world of Trek! But the Enterprise’s future almost wasn’t so bright.

The USS Enterprise Goes in for Major Refit
From left to right: Andrew Probert, Michael Okuda, Rick Sternbach and Doug Drexler.

 “Back in the 1990’s, this was an object that didn’t really have a home,” said Weitekamp, “It had been part of various displays, and then it was part of a traveling Star Trek exhibit – at some point, when it came back, there wasn’t a permanent display place available. At eleven feet long, it can’t easily be tucked into a corner! Some of my predecessors were able to find a space in the gift shop – and get that custom case built-in the basement level – as a way to ensure that it stayed on public display and out of an Indiana Jones-style storage facility. It would have been well-preserved, of course, but it would have been out of the public view.”

The USS Enterprise Goes in for Major Refit
This was almost the ultimate destination for our beloved Enterprise.

The efforts of Dr. Weitekamp and the Smithsonian will preserve this treasure for decades to come so that it can be enjoyed by the “Next Generation,” (pun intended…) and the one after that and so on. This simple television prop that was constructed on the cheap out of wood, nails, metal and plastic has inspired millions to reach for the stars, some becoming astronauts, scientists, engineers, military officers and explorers of the unknown in their own right, and will continue to do so for as long as we have a cultural memory and a deep human yearning and desire to, “Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before.”

The Enterprise, after her restoration will go on display in the new Milestones of Flight hall in the newly renovated wing of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington DC sometime in 2016, just in time for the 50th Anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek.

The USS Enterprise Goes in for Major Refit
The old girl looks good for 50 doesn’t she? This photo was taken shortly after the model was constructed in 1964 at the Production Model Shop in Burbank, California. Pictured are three of the men who built it (left to right): Richard C. Datin, Jr., Mel Keys, and Vernon Sion.


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About the author

Tim Piland

Timothy Piland is a classically trained tenor and opera singer. He was born and raised in the Springfield, Mo. Area.

He has performed Roles for Springfield Little Theater, Vandivort Theater, Springfield Regional Opera and Mobile Opera. He has also worked for the Puccini Festival, and the Kansas City Lyric Opera.

In his performing career he has performed roles in: Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Man of La Mancha, Die Fledermouse, La Fanciulla del West, Gianni Schicchi and many other shows.

In 2007, he toured the United Kingdom with the Church of the Incarnation out of Dallas, Texas. This included a week long engagement at Westminster Abbey, as well as a 9 day engagement at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In 2009 he originated the role of the Priest in "Frankenstein, Monster" by Le Wlhelm at the Gilloiz Theater.

He appeared onstage as Rupert Giles for, "A Class Act productions," in their ongoing presentation of Buffy The Vampire Slayer: A Reader’s Theatre Parody, from March 2010-July 2013.

In November 2011, he made his directoral debut, directing "Star Trek Live Onstage: The Trouble with Tribbles," also for "A Class Act." He went on to direct 14 of the next 17 episodes of that live stage show.

Each Christmas you can also catch him at the historic Pythian Castle where he performs in a, "Night of the Dueling Santas," a Christmas dinner show of his own writing. He has been the Ghost Tour Guide for the castle since 2010.

He has been featured on The Discovery Channel, SYFY Channel, The History Channel, NPR.

He is the founder of Harvest Moon Productions and oversees events ranging from concerts to straight plays. He is currently writing a book called "Ghostly Tales From Pythian Castle," which hopefully will see production at some point in 2014.

In 2013 he was cast as Dr. Howard Lagrasse in the 5 episode silent Horror web series SHADOW BOUND, for Arcane Productions. Most recently he was cast in a role in the feature film EVERYTHING, for Parallax Studio.

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