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When the Enterprise exhibit opens at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, "Star Trek" fans will be among the first people in line to see the historic space shuttle. Trekkies – fans of the television series and movies – share a special bond with the prototype for NASA’s first reusable manned spacecraft. The Enterprise got its name thanks, in part, to their efforts.
The first space shuttle was originally supposed to be called the Constitution. But in 1976, President Gerald Ford received tens of thousands of letters from "Star Trek" fans. The science fiction buffs saw the shuttle as the realization of their dream world. They wanted it renamed Enterprise.
“Suddenly, the stuff we were seeing on television, every week, every night on "Star Trek," was becoming a reality,” Frank Gruber said. His home in suburban Lincoln Park, New Jersey, is a shrine to "Star Trek." Models of the starship Enterprise and other fictional spacecraft from the TV shows and movies hang from the ceiling. The walls are covered with photos of Gruber posing with "Star Trek" cast members.
When he was 10 years old, he wrote a passion-filled letter to the then-president. “I remember addressing it to the White House and very, very carefully printing in block letters,” Gruber said. He argued that the shuttle should be renamed Enterprise because "Star Trek" represented “hope for a positive future in which we would have peace.”
Ford ended up renaming the first space shuttle after the starship from a TV series that ran for only three years. Suddenly, a bunch of Hollywood actors found themselves in the realm of astronauts and rocket scientists.
“It was amazing what they accomplished,” said George Takei, who played Lt. Sulu on "Star Trek." “The number of letters going to the White House was of tsunami proportions.”
In 1976, Takei found himself with his fellow cast members at center stage when the Enterprise was unveiled to the public on a runway in Palmdale, California. “They had the Air Force band there. And they started playing the theme from 'Star Trek,' ” Takei said. “Out rolled this glistening craft with the word Enterprise painted on its side. It was a memory that I still cherish today.”
Takei learned that day that "Star Trek" inspired an entire generation of science fiction buffs to get involved with space exploration. NASA engineer and iReporter Candy Torres was among them. “I went to conventions in New York City, and I have the costumes and all those pictures … and I’m not ashamed of them,” she said.
Torres worked on software for the space shuttle at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. She said "Star Trek" fueled her interest in space exploration. “Yes, I wanted the excitement of travel in space and all that, but the 'Star Trek' image of people working together was also very important to me.”
The shuttle Enterprise has more than just a name in common the fictional ship. It never actually went into space. The first space shuttle was built without engines or a heat shield and served as a test platform. That’s OK, as far as Trekkies are concerned.
“It’s a vehicle named Enterprise that’s essentially, for all intents and purposes, a model. And all the ships that we love essentially named Enterprise are models,” Gruber said. “In a way, it’s almost like an extension of the Enterprise we’ve loved for all these years for that reason.”
When Gruber visits the space shuttle Enterprise for the first time, he’ll probably hear the "Star Trek" theme song playing in his head and the words made famous by actor William Shatner, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” In that moment, the 46-year-old part-time instructor at Bergen Community College in New Jersey will be 10 years old again.