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This Old Starship

Ken Isbell, Air & Space, April/May 1992, pg. 20
Accompanying photo ( low-res JPG, 20 kb or high-res JPG, 208 kb ) by Mark Avino

A major exhibit devoted to the television show (and subsequent movie series) Star Trek recently opened at the National Air and Space Museum. It should please all trekkies (or "trekkers," as the fans often prefer). The exhibit, scheduled to run through September 7, includes 80 artifacts, from Mr. Spock's Vulcan ears to the newly refurbished original model of the Starship Enterprise.

Since it was donated to the Museum by Paramount Pictures in 1974, the Enterprise model has been displayed in several exhibits, most recently above the entrance to the Rocketry and Space Flight gallery. It measures 11 feet in length and weighs 200 pounds. As a technician at the Museum's Paul E. Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland, I was assigned to monitor the restoration of the model.

The challenge would be to make the model's plastic, wood, and rolled-steel pipe construction look like new, while at the same time keeping the original paint intact. The paint, which was cracking, would require the most attention. Over the years a streaking effect, which had been added to create a weathered look, had changed the model's color from gray to green. Some surface areas had also suffered stress cracks and warping. In addition, the Enterprise would require a new lighting system.

The restoration project started with a fact finding mission to Los Angeles that I undertook with professional model maker Ed Miarecki. We wanted to talk with the people who had designed, built, and filmed the original model. First we tracked down designer Walter "Matt" Jeffries. He provided us with historical background. He also told us that the starship's insignia, NCC 1701, came from his 1935 Waco airplane.

Our next stop was the tiny Production Models Shop in nearby Glendale. In 1964 its owners, Volmer Jensen, Mel Keys, and Vern Sion, had constructed the model starship for the original television series. Building materials for the model had cost about $600.

We also collected as many photographs of the model as we could find, because the Enterprise had evolved between the filming of the two pilot episodes and the show's premiere on September 8, 1966. It even kept evolving through the series' three-year run. The Howard Anderson Company filmed the model for Paramount, and Howard Anderson Jr., told us that the art department continued to add little details throughout the production. (The exception was the left side of the model, which, because it was never filmed, always remained unadorned.) After a week of running around LA., we consulted with the Smithsonian's Conservation Analytical Laboratory on how to restore the model and also maintain its historical integrity. The decision was made to restore the model to its appearance in the last episode, "Turnabout Intruder."

The restoration required six weeks of intensive labor, with Miarecki working 12-hour days in a Springfield, Massachusetts garage he had converted into a model shop. I checked in periodically by telephone. If things weren't going well I often received a dose of profanity. On one occasion I asked Miarecki if anything was going right and he replied that he had just discovered the origin of the primer coat on the Enterprise: it was a Ford truck gray from 1969. The work was clearly worth it. I'd like to think that Captain Kirk himself would be proud to see his Starship transformed from TV prop to pristine historical artifact.