22 May, 2009

Boldly going …

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The 1960s, Nasa-inspired design of this intergalactic spaceship is beguiling and credible – and not just to Trekkies, writes Jonathan Glancey

The USS, or Starship Enterprise as it’s best known, first warp-factored across our television screens nearly 43 years ago.

In our collective consciousness the Enterprise is indestructible, a flying machine with something of the popular appeal of Concorde, a B-17 Flying Fortress and Cunard’s QE2 liner. You don’t have to be a Trekkie to like the idea of this space cruiser.

There are many who find the whole Star Trek project preposterous, the stuff of kitsch and the silliest sci-fi comics. And good luck to them. For the rest of us, there is something special about a starship hurtling through the final frontier of space, on a mission to “boldly go where no man has gone before”, and to split infinitives where no English language teacher can ever hear you.

Captain James T Kirk and his crew were a kind of Seventh Cavalry seen through a UN lens, battling against intergalactic baddies. And no matter how strange and demanding the experiences they met, they were the sort who enjoyed sharing a joke (usually unfunny) as they sped away to their next close encounter. That this sci-fi soap opera eventually took off to heights immeasurable to man – even to First Officer Spock – has much to do with the design and style of the Enterprise itself.

This huge imaginary machine was created by Matt Jefferies, an aviation artist, set designer and pilot. Jefferies, who had wartime experience with the Flying Fortress, as well as the B-24 (Liberator) and B-25 (Mitchell) bombers, produced his definitive model – all 11 feet of it – in December 1964. This original masterpiece now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC.

Jefferies shaped a spaceship that was hard not be fascinated by. From the very beginning it looked right. Its great central disc, ssshhing sliding doors, its underslung engineering decks, and its massive outrigged twin engines are reminiscent of a late 1950s Harley Earl cadillac. Its interiors – ship-shape in a 60s, Nasa way – seemed convincing and exciting to those who tuned in all those light years ago.

Best of all, especially for children, was trying to guess just how big the Enterprise was. Bigger than the QE2? Bigger than the state of California? Just how many velour-clad crew members were there? And how many decks?

Well it was launched in 2245, its many modular components assembled in space above San Francisco. One of 12 (I think. It might have been 14) constitution-class space cruisers, it had a beam of 417 feet (the breadth of the QE2, by comparison, is 105 feet). It boasted more than 20 decks, 14 science labs and a crew of between 203 and 430 (depending on which of a seemingly infinite number of Star Trek websites you care to believe). Its weapons were phasers and photon torpedoes, and to keep alien enemies guessing, it was fitted with a Romulan cloaking device that made it invisible.

Enterprise was fast. Very fast. Powered by two onboard impulse engines and a pair of outboard warp-drive engines, it had a top speed of warp factor eight – or eight times the speed of light – and acceleration to match. Fuel consumption has never been revealed, but who know’s if the engine’s energy source – dilithium crystals – were likely to have been efficient. This super-fast space cruiser was in a different performance league from the stately vessels that waltzed gracefully across cinema screens in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet the spaceships of 2001 and Star Trek have something in common. Both drew design inspiration from Nasa, and in their different ways both are somehow credible.

The Enterprise’s greatest claim to fame was its five-year mission to boldly go etc, which took place between 2245 and 2270, in which year it returned to Earth for a complete refit and began to look a little more whizzy and flash with interiors owing more to hotel decor than to battle cruisers. Matt Jefferies despised them, but what did he know? He lived in the 20th century and could hardly be expected to appreciate late 23rd-century neo-bling design.

Although it was finally destroyed, Enterprise flies on – and on – across small and large screens worldwide, trailing memorable plotlines and quotes in its wake. Whether its design is ultimately illogical, the USS Enterprise surely has a place in the most hardened heart as it continues, in our imagination, towards the final frontier.

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