YOU STARE at it and stare at it until you think it's coming alive.

The tiny men on the bridge of this 11-foot model of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise almost seem to move after a while. The miniature fuel hoses, hardly thicker than black thread, have the slippery sleekness of rubber. Even when you peer into the hangar deck, it's all there, the mural someone painted on a bulkhead, the sprinkler system, the deck rivets, big as a flea's eye.

"I did it on a bet," said Stephen Henninger, who brought the model to town last week to install it at the Air and Space Museum. "I was working at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge after I got out of Boston University in '64, and I made a bet with a naval historian I could make a 1:100 scale model of a major ship. I picked the Enterprise because it had the most information available, plans, photographs and even some model kits."

This is no model from a kit. Even as a boy, Henninger scorned kits and built from scratch. He did a B52 (residing in his mother's basement) and a Vickers Viscount (in the attic), and now the Enterprise, which will stay at the museum.

He didn't actually start until he was RIFfed from his job in 1976, became a machinist and roamed the world. The Enterprise was designed in Peru, begun in Africa, continued in Massachusetts and finished in Boulder, Colo., where the artist still lives.

It took him 12 years and 12,000 hours of concentrated work. He has no idea how much it cost him.

"I did this one for love," he said. "Kind of paying my dues. Now I hope to get some orders to do other models for companies or millionaires or whatever."

Seventy-two of the planes on the decks were built from kits, but the other 10, including the complex A4 Skyhawks, were made from scratch. The Corsairs, Intruders, Sea Kings, Tomcats and other planes took 4,000 hours.

There is still work to be done, notably creating and accurately painting the color-coded clothes of the several hundred crewmen who will be on the scene. There are only three so far. Under the bow lay the tools of his steady-fingered, squint-eyed, hold-your-breath art: a razor blade, model glue, tweezers, a bit of wire.

"Tired of it?" He rolled his eyes. "I dream about it. I can tell you about every one of the 243 blocks of wood that it rests on (atop a fine walnut pedestal built by a Colorado friend, Tom Conlon) and the wheels on the little gas trucks and the lettering decals on all the planes." His glance raked the gray deck still another time, taking in familiar details from the pea-sized wolf-head design on a plane rudder to the ladders that a bee could climb.

"I brought it here on a truck. Every bump in the road . . . man!" He shrugged, grinned. "Oh well, if you lose it you can always build another one."

Henninger, 39, first got interested in planes and ships from watching the "Victory at Sea" series on TV, long before the Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered carrier, was launched in 1960. The model building was just one of those things a kid did before Atari video games. He never thought then, and even less when he graduated with a math degree, that some day he would be making models for a living.

And what about the guy who made the bet?

"Oh, I never saw him again. I forgot all about it."