All that’s coming soon. For right now, you will find the model lying on a workroom table. The conservators are working on a whole series of structural and aesthetic problems with the model. They are cleaning and stabilizing the iconic letters spelling out the ship’s full name, “U.S.S. ENTERPRISE NCC-1701,” emblazoned on the top saucer, and they are looking to find ways to address the aging glue that held the engineering hull together, among other things.
While NASM is principally a history museum, they also teach a lot of science and engineering. According to Museum educator Beth Wilson, “We try to wrap some science, technology, engineering and math around everything that we do.” That’s easy at NASM because you can demonstrate principles next to real, honest-to-goodness scientific artifacts. Beth teaches about lift and airfoils in front of the airplane the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903. She can teach astronomy using the engineering model of Hubble Space Telescope.
But “Star Trek” was science fiction, not science fact. How can you use something like that to teach? Weitekamp did just that at Cornell University before she was hired at the Smithsonian. “I had been teaching classes on space history and science fiction because I saw those topics as very connected,” she says. According to Beth Wilson, “When the science is there and it’s good, and the imagination is there and it’s good, then the science fiction is great and you can use all that to teach.” She gives the example of the space station in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “They wanted to create gravity, so they really looked at the science and how to make that spin and how that would create gravity,” she says. “So that is really good science.”
“Star Trek” is loaded with really good science too, which may be a reason why it has inspired generations of astronauts and space scientists. Astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, told C-SPAN, “I was very much a ‘Star Trek’ fan and I like to say that I watched it in the ‘60s, when it first came on.” She calls the show “wonderful, because it put women in non-traditional roles. Lt. Uhura was maybe the first woman that you saw every week on television who worked in a technical field.” Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura “was instrumental in recruiting the first women and minority astronauts for NASA,” Jemison says.
As the franchise has lived on, that inspiration for real scientists has, too. As NASM’s Beth Wilson points out, “The X Prize is now trying to get people to invent a tricorder,” the handheld machine on “Star Trek” that would diagnose and heal injuries. “And they’re not calling it ‘your own personal health monitoring computer,’ Wilson says. “They’re calling it a tricorder for a reason.”
You’ll find that sense of inspiration in the Smithsonian too. “The museum listens carefully to fans of ‘Star Trek’ in part because we’re also fans of ‘Star Trek,’ Weitekamp says. “In fact, 20 years ago, the very first gift that my husband ever gave me was a little Lt. Worf figurine that he picked up when he was in Los Angeles. Being able to put those kinds of cultural objects on display allows the museum to really deepen the stories of the science and technology.”