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Set Phasers to Smash: Shuttle Enterprise Damaged In Transit

A close up shows the damage to Enterprise's wing. Photo Credit: Dennis Jenkins via collectSPACE.com

It’s often said that when traveling, how you get where you’re going is more important more than where you end up. For the space shuttle Enterprise, its journey to the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York City  is one no one will soon forget as much as they might want to. During its maritime transit, NASA’s first shuttle had its wing clipped. 

Enterprise, perhaps to the chagrin of some New Yorkers, is the prototype shuttle that never flew in space. But that doesn’t make it less of a historic vehicle; Enterprise was the first spacecraft that taught astronauts the dynamics of landing on a runway from space. Even its name has a rich history. Originally called Constitution – the shuttle was completed and rolled out in 1976, the year of the United States’ bicentennial – a fierce letter writing campaign from Star Trek fans to President Gerald Ford spurred on the name change. Ford directed NASA to rename the shuttle Enterprise. For those not steeped in Star Trek culture, the Enterprise is the fictitious spaceship that Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock flew during an intergalactic battle with the Klingons

The first of Enterprise’s five free flights from the NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft at Dryden in 1977 were part of the shuttle program approach and landing tests, which verified orbiter aerodynamics and handling characteristics. The tail cone over the main engine area designed to smooth turbulent airflow during flight was removed for the last two tests. Photo Credit: NASA

Enterprise’s new home also boasts historical importance. Before it was a museum, the USS Intrepid served in World War II, Vietnam, and provided submarine surveillance in the North Atlantic during the Cold War. She was also the ship that pulled Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter out of the water after his flight aboard Aurora 7 in May 1962.

Like Carpenter, Enterprise was hoisted from the water onto Intrepid’s deck, but manoeuvering the 150,000 pound shuttle – even getting it to Intrepid – was a little more complicated than a Mercury recovery.

To get to its new home, Enterprise took a scenic route. On April 27, hundreds of tourists and New Yorkers watched as Enterprise flew over the city piggy-backed on a Boeing 747. The shuttle landed at John F. Kennedy Airport before it was loaded onto the barge that took it through New York Harbor en route to Bayonne, New Jersey where it was transferred to a different barge for the final leg of its trip. After a few days’ rest, the latter barge, which was equipped with a crane, delivered Enterprise to the museum on Wednesday afternoon.

A look at the gouge the wing left in the bridge's abutment. Photo Credit: Dennis Jenkins via collectSPACE.com

But it didn’t arrive unscathed. During the first leg of its maritime journey, moving from JFK to New Jersey, the shuttle faced more obstacles than weather and rough seas. It had to pass under a number of waterway crossings. The railway bridge was a particular challenge, offering just feet of clearance on either side of the shuttle’s wingspan.

When it came time to pass under that narrow bridge, Mother Nature made things worse. A sudden microburst of wind, measured at 35 knots, knocked the shuttle and pushed the protective layer of foam over the wingtip into the bridge abutment, the wood siding that offers a bumper for sea vessels. Official statements say there was no damage to the bridge and light cosmetic damage to the protective layer of foam on the craft’s wingtip.

The space shuttle Enterprise, atop a barge, passes the Statue of Liberty in New York on its way to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum where it will be permanently displayed, Wednesday, June 6, 2012. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The minor crash may have been a setback, but it didn’t delay the museum mounting the shuttle on its steel-enforced deck. In July, the Intrepid will open its Space Shuttle Pavilion on its flight deck where Enterprise will be housed. “Enterprise brings our space story and our role in exploration and new inventions and innovation just full circle,” said Sherry Levinsky-Raskin, Assistant Vice President of Education at Intrepid, in a video on the museum’s website. Adding NASA’s first shuttle to the museum’s collection certainly adds a new wealth of information and stories to the history Intrepid already displays. Clipped wing or not.

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