In 1977, NASA conducted a series of tests on a new type of craft: the Space Shuttle Enterprise. Now, that prototype—which never left the Earth’s atmosphere but blazed the way for three decades of extraterrestrial travel—will open to the public on Thursday 19 in a specially designed pavilion on the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Visitors will get to walk close to and under the 180-foot-long, six-story Shuttle, the wingspan of which is more than 70 feet (the interior, sadly, is off-limits). Meanwhile, multimedia displays, images and artifacts will tell the story of space exploration and the Enterprise’s role in it.
In honor of the exhibit’s unveiling, the museum is hosting four days of Shuttle-themed programming, dubbed SpaceFest (July 19–Sun 22 10am–7pm; July 20 10am–5pm). Attendees will be able to watch NASA robotics demonstrations, learn about travel to Mars, catch a free screening of 2009’s Star Trek on the flight deck (Fri 20 at 7:30pm), and meet current and former astronauts, including three of the four original team members who flew Enterprise: pilot Richard Truly and commanders Joe Engle and Fred Haise.
Although the Enterprise wasn’t designed to go into space (it lacked the rocket engines needed to fly beyond the atmosphere), it allowed NASA to try out the design’s functionality, such as its ability to land safely, before sending astronauts into an orbital flight. “Structurally, it’s exactly like the ones that went into orbit,” says Truly. “Up on the flight deck, there are two ejection seats and instruments to fly the airplane in front of each. The commander sits on the left and the pilot sits on the right. I was in the right seat flying with Joe.”
During tests, a Boeing 747—similar to the one that ferried the craft up the Eastern Seaboard in April—lifted the Enterprise into the sky. “Sitting in the Enterprise cockpit, you couldn’t see any part of the 747; you couldn’t see the nose or the wings below you,” remembers Truly. “It was like you were in an airplane but you had no control—you were just along for the ride.” After a few initial “captive” runs, when the Shuttle remained atop the carrier, the Enterprise was ready for the next phase of testing: free flight. “The Shuttle was attached to the 747 at three great big bolts that had pyrotechnic cutters on them, so when you got to the point where it was time to separate, you’d push this button—there would be a loud bang—and you’d simultaneously cut each of the bolts, and then, suddenly, instead of one big airplane, you were two,” says Truly. “It was more fun than you can imagine.”
Truly went into space aboard the Columbia in 1981 and the Challenger in 1983, and later served as NASA’s highest-ranking official from 1989 to 1992. Meanwhile, NASA retired Enterprise in the early ’80s, and the ship was then exhibited internationally before finding a long-term home at the Smithsonian, and now the Intrepid.
BLAST OFF! Space Shuttle Enterprise, Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, Pier 86, Twelfth Ave at 46th St (877-957-7447, intrepidmuseum.org). Mon–Fri 10am–5pm; Sat, Sun 10am–6pm. $24, seniors and U.S. college students $20, veterans $17, children 7–17 $19, children 3–6 $12, children under 3 and retired and active military personnel free. (Ribbon-cutting July 19 at 11am.)
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