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ARKIB : 01/11/2004

Shuttle Enterprise takes centre stage, at last

AIRCRAFT, including space shuttle Enterprise, displayed during a press preview at the James S. McDonnel Space Hanger at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Virginia, Oct 20. - AFPpix.

CHANTILLY (Virginia) - Space shuttle Enterprise was born to be an astronautical bridesmaid, never a bride.

Built in 1976 as one of the first trio of US shuttles, Enterprise never left Earth's atmosphere and was used as a test vehicle to help its more famous sister ships Challenger and Columbia carry a generation of astronauts into space.

Both Columbia and Challenger were destroyed in deadly accidents, but Enterprise has come out of storage and into its own as the centrepiece of a new exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Centre outside Washington DC.

Visitors can almost rub noses with Enterprise in the middle of the 53,000-square-foot (4,924-sq-metre) space hangar near Dulles International Airport in Virginia. The big space plane has been on display since November 2003, but was kept at some distance from the public while cleaning and preservation proceeded.

With maintenance complete, the public can get close enough to see the individual tiles - similar in appearance to bathroom tiles, rather than the heat-shielding tiles on other shuttles - on Enterprise. The new exhibit opens Nov 1.

There will be no tours of Enterprise's interior, though, because even now, Enterprise is no mere museum piece. It's still important to the shuttle fleet.

``NASA stripped this vehicle completely,'' retired Gen Jack Dailey, the museum's director, said at a briefing. ``It's the lead ship (in the trio of shuttles) and that's why it was so valuable to NASA in the accident investigation on Columbia ... There are many spares that have been removed from this vehicle.''

After shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas on Feb 1, 2003, investigators worked for months to determine how superheated air managed to get through the leading edge of the shuttle's left wing. The answer turned out to be that foam insulation fell from the shuttle's external tank during lift-off, damaging the wing.

To help in the investigation, experts used the leading edge of Enterprise's left wing, and the place where that edge should be has been replaced by a light green material.

``These (panels) were borrowed by NASA for use in the Columbia accident investigation and they're continuing to be used in testing for return to flight activities,'' said Valerie Neal, a museum curator. ``So we hope to have those back in the new year.''

The remaining three shuttles have been grounded since the Columbia accident, with no return to shuttle flight expected before next May or June.

Because Enterprise is still used for testing and investigation by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, parts of it must be kept in flight-ready condition, Dailey said in an interview.

Enterprise was given to the museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1985, but was kept outside for two years before a special hangar could be built to contain it at Dulles airport. When the museum was ready in 2003, workers had to tow Enterprise across the airfield - but that happened to be the period when Hurricane Isabel was battering the area.

``Actually, it was an advantage because (the hurricane) did a pretty good job of washing,'' Dailey said.

After that, a team of workers used household cleaning liquid, sponges, rags and scrapers to refurbish the exterior of the craft.

``When you're working with a scraper that's maybe an inch and a quarter (3 cm) wide, that's a big object,'' said Ann McCombs, one of the specialists who worked on Enterprise.

McCombs pointed out the handful of holes left by woodpeckers in the high-density foam on the shuttle's tail. She also recalled seeing some four dozen ladybugs gathered at one spot on the ship.

Besides Enterprise, the space hangar has more than 100 large artifacts of human space exploration, including space capsules that carried astronauts back to Earth, a quarantine trailer to isolate any possible ``Moon germs'' after the first human lunar mission and an selection of cruise missiles and satellites.

Some of the smaller artifacts are equally arresting, including an android designed to help develop spacesuits, a 1985-vintage virtual reality helmet, an unappetising array of vacuum-packed food for 1970s-era astronauts and a Disposable Absorption Containment Trunk - an early space diaper. - Reuters

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