About four times each year, State Parks adds a variety of properties to the State Register of Historic Places, a step towards later being listed on the National Register of Historic Places as important pieces of America’s broad cultural heritage.
But while the vast majority of these listings are buildings, like factories, churches, homes, libraries or schools, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, Parks’ historic researchers like me working on the register listings get to take on the story of something truly out of this world.
Science fiction fans worldwide recognize the name “Enterprise” as the name of the starship in iconic 1960s television series Star Trek. A decade after the show went off the air, those fans helped see to it that America’s first prototype of a reusable orbiting spacecraft would also carry that name. In 2013 I was honored to document that historical connection as part of support for the listing the NASA Space Shuttle Enterprise on the state and national historic registers as culturally and technologically significant.
It was 45 years ago this September when the Space Shuttle Enterprise rolled out of its assembly building at Rockwell International Space Division’s facility in Palmdale, California. Waiting outside were a crowd of VIPs that included six cast members of the Star Trek crew, and series creator Gene Roddenberry.
NASA had initially suggested naming the prototype Constitution and even wanted to unveil the spacecraft on September 17 – Constitution Day. But as NASA’s plans became publicly known, thousands of fans of Star Trek – which had gone off the air several years earlier in 1969 – began a write-in campaign to the White House urging President Gerald Ford to name the orbiter Enterprise in honor of the fictional starship.
“I’m a little partial to the name Enterprise,” said Gerald Ford, noting that he had served in the Pacific during World War II aboard a U.S. Navy ship that serviced an aircraft carrier of that name. The Star Trek write-in campaign apparently influenced President Ford and the show’s fans are generally credited as being the driving force behind the shuttle’s name change.
While called Enterprise, the prototype NASA orbiter was formally known as Orbiter Vehicle-101 or OV-101, and represented the culmination of years of research, design, and experimentation. Planning for the Space Shuttle Program had begun in 1968, ten months before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. The intent was to develop a reusable and affordable vehicle that could travel to and from space routinely, easily, and affordably.
Unlike typical aviation advancement, the space shuttle was a major technological leap forward. While airplanes tend to slowly evolve over time through constant adjustments based on testing and performance, the systems and design of the shuttle was unprecedented. Space flight capabilities went from disposable rockets and capsules to a reusable cargo space plane in only twenty years; there was no transitional design. As a prototype, Enterprise was largely responsible for making sure these new technologies and concepts worked properly to ensure the safety of the astronauts who would fly aboard the other vehicles.
Two events likely led to the decision to use a rocket/space plane system for the shuttle: the advent of thermal insulation tiles by Lockheed, which made it affordable and convenient to insulate an airplane-like design, and the order by Congress that the next space vehicle meet not only the requirements of NASA but also the U.S. Air Force. One of the biggest requirements of the Air Force was the ability to land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California so that classified missions could be completed quickly and efficiently. After testing it was determined that the sweeping, triangular-shaped delta wing design would be more stable and would allow for the necessary maneuverability at high speeds that a conventional wing design wouldn’t allow.
Enterprise, the first and only full-scale prototype orbiter vehicle of the space shuttle fleet,was first used during the Approach and Landing Tests, one of the earliest missions of the Space Shuttle Program. The Approach and Landing Tests program saw Enterprise fly in Earth’s atmosphere, doing so thirteen times, five of which saw it separate from the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft to fly and land unaided. The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft is a modified Boeing 747 that is used to transport space shuttle orbiter vehicles in a piggyback-like configuration.
Enterprise was also of paramount importance in planning and preparation at shuttle facilities in Florida and California. In the early days of the Space Shuttle Program, Enterprise was the only completed orbiter vehicle and was therefore the only vehicle capable of ensuring that the facilities were prepared and ready for the first launch. The fit checks, vibration tests, atmospheric flights and landings, and various other development tasks performed on Enterprise enabled Columbia to launch successfully into space during STS-1 on April 12, 1981.
Enterprise was used later in the investigations and procedural revisions following the Challenger and Columbia shuttle accidents. Following the Challenger accident in 1986, Enterprise aided in crew escape tests. Following the Columbia accident in 2003, one of Enterprise’s wing edges and a landing gear door were borrowed for tests related to foam chunks striking an orbiter during launch. Although the loss of two space shuttle orbiters was a devastating loss, Enterprise helped the program return to flight and continue its mission.
In 1983, Enterprise began its role as an ambassador and educational tool. Enterprise was first ferried to Paris, France for the Paris Air Show. The international tour continued on with stops in England, Germany, Italy, and Canada. This tour represents the only time an orbiter has travelled internationally. Upon returning home Enterprise was showcased at the World’s Fair in New Orleans, Louisiana. On November 18, 1985 Enterprise became the property of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
In June 1987 Enterprise was used for testing landing barriers. The landing barrier is essentially a large net stretched across the runway that helps the orbiter reduce speed when landing. The tests were successful, and the landing barriers were installed at three Transoceanic Abort Landing sites (Moron and Zaragota, both in Spain, and Banjul, Gambia). Although retired, Enterprise continued to aid NASA throughout the 1990s and 2000s to test new systems and technology.
Enterprise was put on public display by the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. from 2004 to 2012 before being transferred to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan, where it remains on display.
Accomplishments of Enterprise and the Space Shuttle Program
The Space Shuttle Program is responsible for releasing some of the most significant orbiting telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The shuttles also released many groundbreaking probes and space craft including: the Galileo probe, which explored Jupiter; the Magellan probe, which helped map Venus; and the Ulysses probe, which conducted the first systematic survey of the environment of the Sun.
The biggest achievement of the program was the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). The main purpose of the ISS is to serve as an orbiting laboratory. The station has advanced science and technology in areas ranging from biology and medicine to astronomy and physics. Hundreds of experiments have been conducted in orbit aboard the shuttle and the ISS. Some of them are long term and more publicized, such as the effects of microgravity on the human body. Astronaut John Glenn, who first traveled to space during the Mercury Program in 1962, returned to space in 1998 at the age of 77 as part of an experiment to better understand the effects of microgravity on the elderly. Other experiments are much smaller in scope, such as determining if fish can swim upright and observing seed growth in microgravity.
Leroy Chiao, NASA astronaut on STS-65 (1994), STS-72 (1996), and STS-92 (2000), as well as commander and science officer on International Space Station Expedition 10 (2004-2005), stated that “[The] shuttle, to me, represents a triumph and remains to this day a technological marvel. We learned so much from the program, not only in the advancement of science and international relations, but also from what works and what doesn’t on a reusable vehicle. The lessons learned from shuttle will make future US spacecraft more reliable, safer, and cost effective.”
The space shuttle program was also the first American space program to reflect NASA’s adoption of diverse hiring practices. In the late 1970s NASA became more progressive regarding its astronaut selection process. Test pilots and military personnel were no longer the only recruitment avenue for astronauts. The agency began focusing on scientists and engineers as well as women and minority groups. The space shuttle program provided a platform for NASA’s shift in culture and allowing space to become accessible for everyone in a way that hadn’t previously existed. The first American woman (Sally Ride, 1983), first African American (Guion Bluford, 1983), and first African American woman (Mae Jemison, 1992) flew in space aboard the space shuttle. In addition, many non-US citizens have flow aboard the shuttle, representing a diverse group of people and a high level of cooperation. NASA brought diversity, equity, and inclusion to space exploration via the space shuttle.
“[The space shuttle] will be remembered for being the vehicle that enabled us to get the International Space Station successfully assembled on orbit, but it depends on what your favorite thing is. If you’re a scientist or an astronomer, it will always be remembered as the vehicle that delivered the Hubble Space Telescope, then flew four successful servicing missions capped off by one of the most spectacular flights in the history of the shuttle program, STS-125, when we did five back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back space walks and carried out every objective of that flight when no one thought we would be able to finish everything.
You look at other satellites that it deployed: Magellan, Ulysses. You look at the space laboratory that was flown on it, or the space habitation module. The people that it took to space. We now see, when you look at an astronaut crew, it’s usually a rainbow of people—all races, all genders, all nationalities…There are countless things that the space shuttle will mean, just depending on who you are and where you sit.”
– Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, 2011
Like its fictional namesake, the shuttle Enterprise was the first step of a bold journey further into outer space. It performed a 36-year mission (seven times longer than that of the Star Trek Enterprise) that set the stage for the shuttles Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavor and their crews to undertake unprecedented scientific and technological missions in orbit. The pioneering vessel truly has a place in the nation’s history, and State Parks was proud to have gotten it listed to the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
Live Long and Prosper!
All photos credited to NASA unless otherwise noted.
Post by Daniel A. Bagrow, Historic Preservation Program Analyst, State Parks Historic Preservation Office