The Constitution and the Enterprise: It's Been Quite a Trek
Happy Constitution Day. Yes, it was 232 years ago -- doesn’t it only seem like yesterday? -- that America’s Founding Fathers signed the document with that stunningly eloquent three-word preamble: “We the People.”
Although the definition of “we” has expanded over time, as it had to -- thus confirming the Framers’ foresight -- it is more fashionable today to focus on the Framers’ gender and race than their genius.
You can have a popular Broadway show assailing the U.S. Constitution, which seems odd, but that’s a nod to the Founders, too, as the First Amendment attests.
Governments that give voice to the people are always going to be restive, even contentious, as National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials discovered 43 years ago. Moreover, it is often the people, not the experts or the government, who are proven right. So it was on this date in 1976 when the first space shuttle was unveiled in the California desert.
It was America’s bicentennial, which President Gerald R. Ford had been honoring in a series of speeches that year, and NASA officials believed that their choice of a name for the first ship in the fleet -- the Space Shuttle Constitution -- would be right up the president’s alley.
They were mistaken, as we’ll see in a moment.
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Although I’ve written previously about the naming of NASA’s first space shuttle, this bit of Americana has never seemed so timely as it does now. “Space Shuttle Constitution” would have been a fine name, and NASA’s decision to unveil it on Sept. 17, 1976, was a deft public relations touch.
And yet, a couple of weeks before the “reveal,” White House officials let it be known that the prototype’s name was being changed to the Space Shuttle Enterprise. But why?
“Space, the final frontier,” intoned the narrator on many an episode of the iconic “Star Trek” television series (and, later, movie series). The mission of the Starship Enterprise, audiences were told, was to explore strange new worlds, seeking out new life and civilizations, and “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
It was evocative phrasing, more Hollywood than science, or so one might have thought. But the language, which appeared in the very first show that aired on Sept. 8, 1966, was borrowed from a 1958 White House report called “Introduction to Outer Space,” commissioned and signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower and prepared by the president’s science advisory committee.
It began by posing a simple question: “What are the principle reasons for undertaking a national space program?” The report then answered that question, laying out four factors, starting with the “compelling” urge of human beings to explore the unknown -- to “go where no one has gone before.”
As for “the final frontier,” that wording evoked the “New Frontier,” the catchphrase used by John F. Kennedy, the president with whom Americans mostly closely associate the U.S. space program. Another president, Jerry Ford, was in office at the time the space shuttle program was coming on line -- and it was Ford himself who evidently picked the name “Space Shuttle Enterprise.”
“Enterprise is most definitely a unique machine, right down to the origin of its name,” NASA says in its official accounting of the prototype. “It was originally to be named Constitution, but viewers of the popular TV show ‘Star Trek’ started a write-in campaign urging the White House to select the name Enterprise.”
This was before the Internet, mind you, but the Trekkies were well organized. An estimated 400 magazines and bulletins existed for fans of the television show, which ran on NBC from 1966-1969. The network tried to cancel it after a second season, but was dissuaded in part by a spirited letter-writing campaign initially organized at Cal Tech. Still, the show’s ratings were low by the standards of the time (now it would be a huge success) and it was canceled after three seasons. But as the program went into syndication and another generation of tech-savvy Americans came of age, “Star Trek” developed a cult following. That is how, a decade after it first aired, 1970s Trekkies ginned up a second letter-writing campaign promoting the name Enterprise.
At the White House, there were other considerations as well. For starters, the space shuttle program was envisioned as an international effort. Transnational cooperation was supposed to be more salient a theme than American Exceptionalism. In other words, the Starship Enterprise, with its multicultural and multinational crew, was perhaps a better symbol than the U.S. Constitution.
Still, “Enterprise” certainly passed patriotic muster. It was a storied name in U.S. Navy lore: starting with a Revolutionary War sloop by that name and continuing through World War II. In the Pacific, the “Big E” was an aircraft carrier with such a fearsome reputation that the Japanese reported three times that they had sunk her. (They never did, and the USS Enterprise helped win the battles of Midway, Guadalcanal, and Leyte Gulf. The ship was retired in 1947 as the most decorated American vessel in naval history.) A subsequent nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of the same name was commissioned in 1961.
President Ford never commented publicly on the Trekkies’ write-in campaign, although he did tell NASA administrator James D. Fletcher that he served in the Pacific aboard a Navy ship that serviced the Big E. “I’m a little partial to the name Enterprise,” he said. And so it was done.
For its part, NASA did not attempt to hide the influence of “Star Trek.” fans. Quite the opposite. At the Sept. 17, 1976 unveiling of the first space shuttle, NASA officials, astronauts, and politicians, were joined by the original “Star Trek” cast members outside the Palmdale, Calif., manufacturing facility with the program’s theme music soaring through loudspeakers.
Among those present were series creator Gene Rodenberry and Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed Mr. Spock, along with DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy), George Takei (Mr. Sulu), James Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott), Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura), and Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov).
Over the next generation, America’s shuttle program would experience not one but two tragedies. And despite two major retrofitting efforts, the Enterprise itself would never fly in space. That would have been true had the maiden airship been named the Constitution, and it would have been apt as well.
The U.S. Constitution -- the document, I mean, not the proposed space shuttle -- wasn’t a perfect instrument, either. It, too, has required numerous repairs and refittings. We know them as amendments and judicial interpretations. Even then it has taken civil war and civic strife and endless (and ongoing) national discourse to make the thing work. We aren’t done yet.
Like the Starship Enterprise, the Constitution sought to boldly go where no one had gone before. Who said it would be easy?