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NEW YORK — New York City, meet space shuttle Enterprise.
On Thursday (July 19), the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum on Manhattan's west side opened its new "Space Shuttle Pavilion" to the public, giving tourists and the Big Apple's residents a chance to "up-close and personal" with NASA's first prototype orbiter on board the flight deck of the converted aircraft carrier.
"As a pioneer of space exploration, an on-going American saga that the Intrepid herself played a critical role as a recovery vessel during the Mercury and Gemini programs, Enterprise embodies this museum's mission to honor our heroes, to educate the public and inspire our youth," said Bruce Mosler, co-chairman of the Intrepid.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden joined a dozen of his fellow shuttle-era astronauts — including three of the four pilots who flew Enterprise during its atmospheric approach and landing test program in 1977 — for Thursday's grand opening ceremony and ribbon cutting that was staged just outside of the shuttle's pressurized pavilion on board the Intrepid. [Video: Shuttle Enterprise Unveiled in NYC]
"I knew bringing a space shuttle to New York City was the right thing to do," Bolden told collectSPACE. "You know, it is the capital of the world when you really stop and think about it. Everybody comes to New York, so it is the right place to be."
The museum is built into the retired U.S.S. Intrepid World War II aircraft carrier. Enterprise's exhibit sits at the front of Intrepid's flight deck, the shuttle's nose pointing toward the Hudson River.
"Placing a shuttle on top of a World War II aircraft carrier is not an easy feat, and I might be able to say we are now the only ones in the world who've made that happen," said Susan Marenoff-Zausner, the Intrepid's president.
Enterprise, which never flew in space, is presented in a darkened display with dramatic blue lighting, evoking the atmosphere of flight. Backlit images and flat panel video displays surround the winged orbiter, sharing its history, the history of NASA's 30-year space shuttle program, and the advancements in aviation and aerospace that led to its development. [Gallery: Space Shuttle Enterprise on Exhibit]
Visitors are welcome to walk up to, around and under the shuttle — a feature that is unique to the Intrepid's display as compared to the other exhibits for NASA's other retired orbiters. Enterprise's underbelly, which is lined with foam replicas of the space-worthy shuttles' heat shield tiles, is just 10 feet (3 meters) above the floor.
A raised platform at the front of the vehicle allows guests to come nose-to-nose with the Enterprise, as well as look into its crew cabin's windows and down the length of the 122 foot (37 meter) prototype spacecraft.
"Enterprise's arrival opens a new chapter in the story of the Intrepid museum," Ken Fisher, Intrepid's co-chairman, said. "This truly fulfills the 'space' portion of our museum's name and offers an unprecedented and unmatched tool to educate our visitors, especially our young ones."
The opening of the pavilion reunited astronauts Joe Engle, Richard Truly and Fred Haise, who flew Enterprise in pairs during its eight piloted test flights made between June and October 1977.
The space shuttle's fourth pilot, Gordon Fullerton, suffered a massive stroke in 2009 and was unable to travel to New York City. His wife, Marie, represented him at the opening ceremony.
"As a naval aviator, this is truly a great place to be," said Haise, speaking on behalf of his fellow Enterprise pilots. "One our compatriots, Dick Truly, this was his first ship."
Truly, who later went on to command two shuttle missions before becoming NASA Administrator, first flew F-8 single engine jets off the Intrepid during his first tour of duty with the Navy.
During the opening ceremony, Marenoff-Zausner, together with Mosler and Fisher, presented the Enterprise veterans with plaques commemorating that their names would be displayed alongside the shuttle in the form of star-shaped displays.
Also on hand for the ceremony were astronauts with ties to the Big Apple, including Karol "Bo" Bobko, who served as prime chase plane pilot for Enterprise's approach and landing test (ALT) program. Bobko was born in New York City.
NASA celebrated the pavilion's opening by bringing to the Intrepid more than 40 exhibits and activities as part of the Samsung Electronics-sponsored "SpaceFest," which the Intrepid is hosting through Sunday.
The journey continues
Thursday's public opening of the Space Shuttle Pavilion is only the first step in the Intrepid's plans for Enterprise.
"The wonderful pavilion and the story that it tells is not the final leg of this journey, that is still to come," Fisher said. "The home, as wonderful as it is, is only temporary."
"The entire Intrepid team is working hard to raise the funds and develop a plan for the permanent home for Enterprise, on the grounds of this museum but not on the flight deck," he added.
The permanent facility, which is expected to open in 2 to 3 years, will enable the Intrepid to share Enterprise's story in even greater detail and to welcome even more people.
"But we're extremely proud of the exhibit we're dedicating today that allows us to showcase Enterprise immediately," Fisher explained. "I probably shouldn't tell you this, but our earlier plan for Enterprise involved keeping her essentially in storage out at JFK Airport until a more permanent home could be built."
"I think having it here now and opening it today is a much better idea," Fisher said.
See shuttles.collectspace.com for continuing coverage of the delivery and display of NASA's retired space shuttles.