shuttle Enterprise has been ensconced aboard the
USS Intrepid for just over two years. It sits in a silent
warehouse, dramatically lit so it appears to be cruising in a
dark vacuum. Tourists can wander around or under it at the exhibit;
they can even walk up some stairs and get nose-to-nose with
the Enterprise, staring down its long axis through a
thick layer of glass.
While the whole thing evokes space exploration,
the Enterprise has never actually made it out of
Earth’s atmosphere. The shuttle on display has the distinction of
being one of NASA’s biggest workhorses despite earning perhaps
the least amount of glory among the entire space shuttle
fleet. So while visitors look closely at
the Enterprise, they can see what has
stopped it from earning more prestige and examine the scars
its body has retained from experimentation during its years in
service from 1976 through 2012.
Like the USS Enterprise it’s named after,
the Enterprise shuttle is more or less fake.
Where a shuttle’s $40 million engines should be,
the Enterprise has mere mockups, covered by a
cone for aerodynamic purposes. A shuttle should be speckled with
reaction control system thrusters to help maintain or change its
orientation in space. But since
the Enterprise has always been Earth-bound, it
has nothing but covered holes.
The shuttle’s skin is also not space-ready. Eventually, NASA
figured out that the best dorsal surface material for shuttles
entering and leaving space was a variety of blankets, some made
from Nomex felt and others from quilted surface material.
The Enterprise’s skin is more like that of a plane, with
polyurethane foam tiles to simulate the surface of actual shuttles.
It uses fibreglass tiles on the leading-edge panels where the
shuttle gets the hottest on re-entry instead of the reinforced
carbon-carbon required to withstand 2,300ºF temperatures.
The Enterprise was never outfitted for space
because it was used mostly in approach and landing tests to see how
a shuttle would fall back to the ground (the last two flights
without a tail cone) as well as launch pad testing. Its first
flight took place on February 18, 1977, mated with a modified
Boeing 747 called the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, and NASA tried
releasing the shuttle to study its fall for the first time on
NASA originally planned to retrofit the
Enterprise to put it into service as a real
shuttle, during the construction of
Columbia in the 1970s, and to
replace Challenger in the 1980s.
Both times it was overlooked in favour of more financially sensible
solutions: Challenger was cheaper
to build from a frame the first time, and Endeavour was a cheaper
replacement for Challenger because
it could be put together from spare parts.
Up close, visitors can see the leading edge where NASA borrowed
tiles from the Enterprise to figure out
whyColumbia broke apart on re-entry in 2003. At the time, investigators
suspected that the breakup started when a piece of foam separated
from Columbia’s external tank and struck its
delicate (and expensive) leading-edge carbon-carbon tiles. When
they tried shooting the same foam
atEnterprise’s stronger fibreglass tiles and the
tiles still took damage, they knew they were on the right
The Enterprise also bears some scars from its
last move, when a worker rapped on some of the tiles on the
port-side landing gear door and cracked them.
Visitors aren’t allowed anywhere inside the shuttle, which is
closed to everyone except select staff and employees responsible
for maintaining and restoring it (plus the occasional visiting
astronaut dignitary). The Intrepid‘s summer
volunteers get a single tour of the interior as a perk. The inside
is mostly stripped aside from structural elements, curator Eric
Boehm told us, which gives it a surprisingly cavernous feel for a
shuttle that is normally crammed with stuff. Still, you might
hardly notice given all the excitement of being inside a space
The Enterprise is sometimes dismissed as a
lesser museum artifact due to the fact that it is not a “real”
shuttle. And for a certain glory-centric definition of shuttle,
that’s true. This was a tool for experimentation that helped us
figure out how space exploration should work; essentially one of
NASA’s most elaborate and expensive playthings.
This article originally appeared on Ars Technica