Space Shuttle Enterprise Has a New Home

By Keith Cowing
November 22, 2003
Filed under ,
Space Shuttle Enterprise Has a New Home

This past Thursday, after spending exactly 18 years in a non-descript hangar at Dulles International Airport, just outside Washington DC, Space Shuttle Enterprise was moved to its new home. Instead of sitting in dark, unglamorous storage, Enterprise is now in a bright place of honor.

Her new home is the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center located to the east of Dulles. The Museum has been under construction for several years and is due to open to he public on 15 December 2003.

While I was not present for this “rollover”, I recently visited the museum for the delivery of the XV-15 tilt rotor aircraft and am planning to attend a press preview briefing on 5 December prior to the museum’s formal opening.

All images courtesy Smithsonian Institution. Click on image to enlarge

If you have seen the immense museum in downtown Washington DC, stretch your imagination and picture a giant hangar-shaped structure easily capable of enclosing the entire downtown museum – with a lot of room to spare. Indeed, it is eerily reminiscent of the aft cargo bay of a Constitution-class starship.

Enterprise will have some famous company: Enola Gay, an SR-71, the first Boeing 707, a Concorde SST, the Apollo Lunar Quarantine Facility, and hundreds of other notable aircraft and hardware.

Enterprise flew only 5 missions on her own – all in early 1977 – none of which ever left the Earth’s atmosphere. After a series of captive tests, a series of “Approach and Landing Tests” were conducted at Edwards Air Force Base. These flights consisted of lofting the Enterprise on top of a modified 747 and then letting the Enterprise fly free to glide in for a landing as an unpowered glider.

After these tests were completed Enterprise was used for a variety for ground vibration tests at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in 1978.

In 1979 Enterprise was transferred to NASA Kennedy Space Center where she was mated with Solid Rocket Boosters and an External Tank for pad and processing fit checks. In 1984 Enterprise was ferried to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for additional pad fit checks. AT one time NASA and the Air Force had planned to launch Shuttle missions for this California launch site. This idea was dropped after the Challenger accident.

While some consideration was given to modifying Enterprise to fly in space, these plans were discarded when it was determined that a substantial portion of the vehicle would have to be replaced so as to make it light enough to carry a meaningful payload into space. It would be cheaper to simply build a new, lighter Shuttle.

Unlike its Star Trek namesake, there would be no refitting of Enterprise. But like its famous namesake, it would still go on to serve for many years to come. Although Enterprise was destined to stay on Earth, some of her components were refurbished and eventually flown on other Shuttles.

After serving as a public relations centerpiece at a variety of international venues in the early 1980s, Enterprise was retired – with thought given to her eventual exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution. Eventually she was delivered to a Smithsonian storage location at Dulles on 18 November 1985.

One small problem: where to exhibit her? There was no room for her downtown -and a “Dulles Annex” for the Air and Space Museum was just a concept – one without funding (the same goes for Metrorail to the same airport). As such, Enterprise would have to wait nearly two decades until the money was found and a new home was completed.

Enterprise then went into its first retirement in 1985 only to be brought back out briefly two years later to test some emergency landing restraint system hardware in 1987 developed in the aftermath of the Challenger accident.

After a second period of retirement inside her hangar at Dulles alongside a variety of other space and aeronautics artifacts, Enterprise once again rose a call for service in 2003 after the Columbia accident when a number of its components were removed for tests and inspection.

When Enterprise was first unveiled in 1976 it was to the strains of the theme from the original Star Trek series. This time the ‘rollover’ to its new home was much less spectacular – indeed, only a few media were present.

As such, Enterprise will have to wait for the formal dedication of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center to enjoy another moment in the public’s attention. Given the enormity of this magnificent new museum, the world will certainly be watching.

Related links

Smithsonian’s Aging Shuttle Enterprise To Aid Columbia Probe, Reports Aviation Week & Space Technology, SpaceRef

26 years since the first flight of NASA’s “Enterprise”, SpaceRef

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.