This guest post comes from Michael Okuda. Michael was the lead graphic designer on seven Star Trek movies and on Star Trek: The Next Generation through Star Trek: Enterprise for which he was responsible for control panel design and written alien languages. He has designed emblems for NASA, including the crew patch for the STS-125 space shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, and the project logo for the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle. His work has been recognized with three primetime Emmy nominations for Best Visual Effects and NASA’s Exceptional Public Service Medal. Michael is also a member of the Museum’s Enterprise advisory committee to conserve the Star Trek Starship Enterprise studio model. Along with his wife, Denise Okuda (also a member of the Star Trek production team and the Smithsonian’s Enterprise advisory committee), Michael is coauthor of the Star Trek Encyclopedia and a member of the Art Directors Guild. A slightly different version of this post appeared on 1701news.com.
The door was locked, but a swipe of a security access card rewarded us with a satisfying “click.” Someone pushed the double doors open and we stepped into the laboratory. We paused for the briefest instant as my eyes, and those of my fellow campers, were transfixed on the object on the other side of the room: The Starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek series. We strode across the room toward the ship, trying not to run. There she was, in all her warp-powered glory. The ship in which we’d vicariously explored the final frontier for so many years. Captain Kirk’s pride, the embodiment of Matt Jefferies’ artistic genius, and the symbol of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic vision. I felt my wife Denise take my hand and I knew this moment meant as much to her as it did to me. Hushed, we all crowded around the ship.
[/one_half_last] Denise and I were at the meeting of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s special advisory committee on the Starship Enterprise studio model. (Yeah, we need a better name.) We were joined by our friends and colleagues: John Goodson (ILM model maker), Gary Kerr (expert on the Enterprise), Andrew Probert (illustrator, designer of the Enterprise-D), Adam Schneider (member of the Space Center Houston board, who restored the full-scale Shuttlecraft Galileo and helped organize the committee), Rick Sternbach (illustrator, designer of the Starship Voyager) and John Van Citters (VP of product development for CBS Consumer Products). We were there at the invitation of Dr. Margaret Weitekamp, one of the Smithsonian’s curators for spaceflight history. We were at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia to see the original Enterprise filming model and to offer suggestions for its conservation, restoration, and display. I called it Nerd Camp.
Designed by art director Walter “Matt” Jefferies in 1964, the Starship Enterprise filming model was built by Richard Datin for the Howard Anderson visual effects company. It appeared in every episode of the original Star Trek series, which aired from 1966 through 1969. Ironically, the final episode aired just a few weeks before the Apollo 11 Moon landing, surely a moment of science fiction come to life. Paramount Pictures donated the model to the Smithsonian Institution in 1974, and it quickly became one of the most popular artifacts in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum. We’d seen the Enterprise model years before at the Smithsonian, but this was our first chance to examine it up close. It was a reunion with a beloved friend. As life-long Trek fans, virtually every line, every detail of Matt Jefferies’s starship felt instantly familiar. Felt right.
They gave us plenty of time to linger over the model. We were in geek heaven. The model is big (3 meters/ 11 feet long!) and we drank in every detail. Even though we knew most of the ship by heart, it’s very different to see it sitting in front of you. We examined the grid lines on the saucer and we looked at the differences between the starboard side (which was intended to be photographed) and the port side (which was not filmed and was mostly undetailed). We could get as close as we wanted to the model, but they made us wear gloves if we wanted to actually touch it. What shined through was the genius of Matt Jefferies’s design. His Enterprise was unlike anything before in visual science fiction. Matt used his background as a real-life aviator to give his creation something he called “aircraft logic,” so the ship seemed to make some sort of functional sense. But he also used his artistic talents to make the Enterprise look like a true creature of deep space, one seeming to defy gravity, one with the power to traverse the vast distances between the stars on humanity’s greatest adventure.
The Enterprise filming model is also a fascinating artifact of a bygone era of visual effects. It shows how filmmakers created the illusion of a huge spacecraft on film, in the pre-CGI era. This was in the days when the process of combining images of the ship with animated stars and planets took many weeks of painstaking work. Star Trek was the first science fiction television series to employ the difficult, expensive process of “optical printer” effects on a regular basis. It was so time consuming that the show was forced to employ five different visual effects companies in order to handle the workload. Having worked on many subsequent Star Trek productions, Denise and I were impressed by the craftsmanship evident in this beautiful model, as well as by the sheer audacity of the original Star Trek team in undertaking such a daunting challenge for a weekly series. In charge of the delicate task of conserving and restoring the model is Malcolm Collum, who carries the impressive title of Engen Conservation Chair for the Museum. He told us one of the most important goals was to preserve the ship for future study, so permanent changes need to be minimized. Conservation specialist Ariel O’Connor took off the hangar deck doors, and we peered inside to see the raw wood and the electrical socket and the bulb that illuminated the windows. Malcolm removed the deflector dish and stuck a flashlight into the engineering hull. I heard a gasp of surprise and delight when the windows lit up, just like we remembered on television. We knew it all along: The Enterprise is real. Still, seeing our favorite starship in such intimate detail revealed some significant issues, mostly the effects of over five decades of aging on a prop intended to last only a few years. Probably the most serious was the sagging of the nacelles. The weight of the engine pods put a lot of stress on the engineering hull, which has begun to crack. Malcolm Collum said he was afraid the hull might eventually split open if this was not addressed. The trick will be to reinforce the model, while minimizing structural changes to this historic artifact. Dr. Weitekamp explained that the Museum wants to tell two different stories with the model. They want to show the imaginary Starship Enterprise as it was on television, but they also want to showcase the model as it was used in the show’s groundbreaking visual effects. This means the Museum will preserve the undetailed port side of the model in its relatively bare state, since that’s the way it was during filming. But it also means they’ll painstakingly restore the paint on most of the model so it matches the original paint and finish on the saucer. Right next to the model, the Smithsonian team set up easels with scale drawings of the ship, done by Gary Kerr, a fellow nerd camper and one of the world’s foremost experts on the ship. Also next to the model was a large computer screen on which we could see numerous reference images. Those included some amazing high-resolution photos of the ship taken during the first season, courtesy of Greg Jein. We studied those closely and were rather surprised to find most of the “weathering” painted on the model during the controversial 1991 restoration was, in fact, quite accurate even though it had been applied too heavily. Another important source of information was the Enterprise model itself. Throughout its time at the Smithsonian, one surface of the model had always been preserved with its original paint and finish. That was the top of the saucer. Although the grid lines were as faint as we had expected, we were surprised to see how much light streaking and other weathering had been painted onto the saucer. We were even more surprised to see that much of the weathering was green and brown, something that we never suspected when watching the show on television. Not all of our time was spent communing with the model. We also had meetings with the curatorial and restoration teams, as well as with the folks designing a new custom display case for the ship. My favorite Nerd Camp moment was during one of those meetings. Denise and I had brought an “authentic” dilithium crystal, used as set dressing in an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise. We presented it to Dr. Weitekamp during our lunch break as a gag gift. We expected her to chuckle for a few moments, but were delighted that she seemed genuinely touched. For a moment, we thought we might even have seen a glint in the corner of her eye. She broke out into the broadest smile imaginable and thanked us. In that moment, we knew that the Enterprise could not possibly be in better hands.
We were so focused on the Enterprise that it was a while before anyone noticed the other aerospace treasures in the Emil Buehler Conservation Lab. Just a couple of tables down was Frank Borman’s spacesuit from Gemini VII, and the hatch from a Mercury spacecraft. And on another table was a panel from the nose of Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis. We all stood for a moment in quiet awe at an artifact from one of America’s greatest aviators.
Down the hall, restoration was underway on Flak-Bait, the historic B-26 that survived more bombing missions than any other U.S. aircraft during World War II. Nearby were flight spares of the historic Mariner 2 (first successful interplanetary probe) and Pioneer 10 (first to Jupiter, first to reach solar escape velocity), as well as two of Robert Goddard’s rockets. Ariel O’Connor showed us a box of genuine NASA Kapton foil that will be used in renovating an Apollo Lunar Module. At the very end of our adventure, we were able to eke out a few minutes to see a few of the actual exhibits in the Udvar-Hazy Center. We had just a few moments to take in a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a Concorde, and the Enola Gay. We stopped briefly at the magnificent Space Shuttle Discovery. Finally, we just HAD to search for the little R2-D2 hidden on the Close Encounters mothership.
Too soon, Nerd Camp was over and we all returned home. Restoration and conservation work on the Enterprise model will soon begin in earnest. The ship will go back on public display in July 2016, part of the unveiling of the National Air and Space Museum’s renovated Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall in Washington, DC. In recent years, the Enterprise languished on display in the Museum’s gift shop. No longer. The starship will soon take its place in the main entry gallery alongside the Spirit of St. Louis, Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 rocket plane, and SpaceShipOne.
Enterprise will be the only fictional spaceship in that historic collection of real-world aerospace icons. Why this extraordinary treatment for something that’s only flown in our imaginations? It’s not just that it was part of a very special television show. It’s not just that it represents the design genius of a talented art director. More than any other single object, the Enterprise represents the inspirational value of science fiction for science, technology, and space exploration. The Enterprise filming model remains the physical manifestation of Gene Roddenberry’s vision: When we work together, when we are smart, and when we are courageous, the benefits of science and technology will improve our lives as we strive to understand the cosmos and literally reach the stars. Blog post by Mike Okuda All photos and video by Mike Okuda except as noted. ©2015 Michael and Denise Okuda