After once hosting a crew of astronauts and test pilots, the Space Shuttle Enterprise became the home for different kinds of aviators: insects and birds.
The craft was left in storage by NASA following its test flights in the 1970s, and the government handed the vehicle over to the National Air and Space Museum in 1985.
While the shuttle was slated to become one the museum’s centerpieces at the Steven F. Udvar Hazy-Center annex in Chanitlly, Va., last year, it had suffered the same wear and tear of any aged craft.
“It needed cleaning, new paint, certain parts needed to be replaced including windows – it needed a lot of work,” said Peter Golkin, spokesman for the National Air and Space Museum.
Enterprise, which never flew in space but was used as a test glider, opened to the public last week after eight months of scrubbing, scraping and rebuilding. Restoring the vehicle, which has not flown in almost three decades, was tedious work.
“Like any vehicle left outside, you can imagine what the elements do to it,” he said.
In many areas of the shuttle, paint was missing and there was evidence that insects and woodpeckers had attacked the experimental vehicle. Visitors to the annex’s grand opening last December were able to see the shuttle but not get close to it. Golkin said the refurbishment began last April and ended in October.
Ed Mautner, museum specialist and leader of the shuttle refurbishment team, said a core group of four technicians familiar with aircraft worked on scaffolds to restore the craft to a pristine white and black finish.
“Frankly, this was one of the neatest projects I’ve been on since working at the National Air and Space Museum,” said Mautner, who added that his team gave special care to resurfacing, cleaning and painting the vehicle.
The group applied the same cleaners and paints used on the operational shuttle fleet, Mautner said. He added that the team worked in collaboration with NASA and the United Space Alliance, which oversees the shuttle program.
The three existing space shuttles are predated by Enterprise, which was built in 1976. The experimental craft performed five missions in the Earth’s atmosphere, gliding down to a landing after being lifted to high altitudes by an altered Boeing 747.
While the vessel never entered space, it provided valuable test data for the development of future shuttles. Mautner said Enterprise is still providing assistance to NASA, which borrowed parts from both its wings to help investigate the Columbia crash two years ago.
The craft is the main exhibit in the annex’s James S. McDonnell space hangar, which also contains missiles, satellites and artifacts from the space race of the 1950s and 1960s.
Mautner said his team is still refurbishing some Enterprise parts, including two large pods toward the rear of the vehicle that house maneuvering thrusters.
“The ones on Enterprise are dummies – they are made out of wood,” Mautner said. “They were sent back to the shop because they were rotted.”
Although still awaiting some finishing touches, Enterprise has been beautifully refurbished, Mautner said. He added that his team has received positive feedback from a number of individuals, including former Enterprise pilot, astronaut and Air Force Colonel Joe Engle.
“He was just awestruck by the finished product and it was such a high to hear that coming from him,” Mautner said.
The newly opened exhibit has also earned high praise from civilian visitors to the annex.
“It’s pretty amazing that you got the real thing here,” District resident Tyler Mallory said. “You only usually see it on TV and you have to be here to appreciate the full scale.”
Mary Baldwin, of Centerville, Va., said she was impressed with the Enterprise’s size and newly finished exterior.
“It’s impressive that they get these things to fly,” she said. “It looks like it’s been there and back.”