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Smithsonian Sets Phasers To Restore On Original Starship Enterprise

Sorry to disappoint Trekkies who still believe, but the actual USS Enterprise did not really take up much space.

That famous starship of Mr. Spock and Capt. James Tiberius Kirk in the original Star Trek TV series — which turns 50 this year — was a model. Quite a large one, to be fair: 11 feet long and about 200 pounds, made out of blow-molded plastic and wood. But not life-sized.

And for more than a decade, it hung in the gift shop of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space museum in Washington, D.C.

"From a conservator's standpoint, that is probably one of the worst places to put an artifact," says Malcolm Collum, the chief conservator of the National Air and Space Museum.

Just one part of the 11-foot-long and 200-pound model, the secondary hull of the USS Enterprise will be restored to its original green hue.
/ Ashley Westerman for NPR
Ashley Westerman for NPR
Just one part of the 11-foot-long and 200-pound model, the secondary hull of the USS Enterprise will be restored to its original green hue.

Collum leads the team that has been painstakingly restoring the Enterprise over the past year and a half. Conservators used a portable X-ray machine — borrowed from the National Zoo — to piece together the internal structure of the ship.

Though the model has been restored a few times before, the goal this time was to bring the starship back to its TV glory days — circa 1967.

"It's an iconic artifact, so we're really treating this as something that is — it needs to be preserved and treated as authentically as possible," Collum says.

The previous restoration in the 1990s, completed in collaboration with the museum, was controversial for its more interpretive coloring.

Collum says one thing they had to get right this time was the color: green, not gray or white as it appeared on the screen.

"In reality it looks very green, and that's usually the thing that people balk at when they first see it," Collum says.

That look was designed with purpose.

"The folks that built the model knew that they had to put on certain colors that would read well in the studio, but they couldn't use blues because they were using a blue-screen background," he says.

The detailing of the ship only extends halfway — the Enterprise was filmed only on its starboard side. When the series needed to show the port side, editors just reversed the film and added different decals.

"We really want to convey to the audience that this is a studio model," Collum says. "It's not only the iconic spaceship that was on the television series, but it is a physically functioning studio prop that had to be lit, it had to be properly supported, the wires had to be hidden."

On June 28, the USS Enterprise will reach its final frontier beside other famous and historical aircraft in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

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