September 17 is an important date in NASA history and the history of the conquest of space. It was on this day in 1976 that the first space shuttle, Enterprise, was unveiled to the public.
The space shuttle program began in the 1960s when, looking beyond the Apollo missions, NASA scientists realized that we would soon need something more practical than a capsule fired from a rocket to put men and materials into orbit. They came up with the idea of developing a reusable spacecraft that could take off like a rocket but would return safely to Earth and land like a conventional plane.
Many years of sketches, models, experiments, and debate followed until January 1974, when construction began on the first full-size shuttle prototype, OV-101. During its two years of construction, OV-101 was given the designation Constitution, as it was expected to be unveiled on Constitution Day in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial.
While Constitution was under construction, a letter-writing campaign began among “Star Trek” fans to rename the craft after the famous starship of the show, the Enterprise. The campaign was begun and organized by Bjo and John Trimble, two avid “Star Trek” fans whose previous campaigns helped saved the show from obscurity after NBC tried to cancel it years before.
The Trimbles started by reaching out to science fiction fans, writers, and the media. The campaign grew rapidly, and before long, tens of thousands of letters reached the White House and caught the attention of President Gerald Ford.
A debate went on behind closed doors about changing the name of the shuttle. With just days to go before the public unveiling of OV-101, Ford told NASA administrator James Fletcher, “I’m a little partial to the name Enterprise,” in part because of the show and what it stood for, but also because of Ford’s attachment to the U.S.S. Enterprise carrier group during World War II.
Those in the government and NASA who balked at the idea of changing the name of the shuttle were drowned out by the multitude of supporters in the government and among the public.
On September 17, 1976, the completed space shuttle Enterprise was rolled out of the hangar at the NASA facility in Palmdale, California. Attendees included “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and many members of the show’s cast.
Enterprise never went into space. It was designed for aerial glide tests only, so it was built with no engines or other complex flight systems. It performed its work perfectly, and was used as NASA’s biggest public relations tool for many years until it was formally retired in 1985. It was moved to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City in April 2012, where it remains to dazzle and inspire people to join in mankind’s ultimate adventure – the exploration of space.