Margaret Weitekamp, 45, is curator for the social and cultural history of spaceflight collection at the National Air and Space Museum. She lives in Burke, Va.
Why does the model USS Enterprise that they used in the original “Star Trek” TV show belong in a Smithsonian museum?
The museum has an interest in how spaceflight has been imagined as an important venue for visualizing what could be possible. As humanity started to go into space in reality, that has led artists and creative people to start thinking about what it might mean for humanity to move out into the universe. “Star Trek” is one surprisingly durable and enduring vision of what that could look like.
What do you learn from looking at the model?
There are literally two sides to this model. One is the fully painted, fully decorated side of the model that faced the camera, and the other side was never fully decorated because the camera would never see it. It allowed us to tell two different stories: the 1960s television star that played the character of the Enterprise, and the other side is in some ways that character without makeup. It was part of an elaborate special-effects process that centered on a material model, which is 11 feet long and 200-odd pounds.
What’s your favorite object in the collection?
We have a Buzz Lightyear action figure that was flown into space as part of a NASA project that uses toys in space as a way of teaching lessons about science to audiences back on Earth. On its flight back, they had buttoned everything up in the shuttle for reentry, but there were weather problems on Earth that meant they had to delay. The crew remembered, “Don’t we have Buzz Lightyear somewhere?” and pulled the toy out and played with it, zooming it around. So even astronauts who work very, very hard, given a little bit of free time and the availability of this very, very fun Buzz Lightyear action figure, took it out and played with it. For a curator, we’re looking for these evocative pieces that tell more than one story.
What is the craziest space thing you’ve ever held in your hand?
Yesterday I went on a tour of the meteorite lab at the National Museum of Natural History and held in my hand meteorite segments that we know are 4.5 billion years old.
Do you remember the first time you saw space depicted in popular culture?
It’s not quite an answer to the question, but I saw Sally Ride’s flight take launch in 1983 when I was a kid on vacation with my family in Florida. My family was on the highway in our rental car, and every car on the highway pulled off to the side, and people sat on the hood of the car and watched this launch go up. I think that is a memory that stays with me about how much technological events can also be big shared social experiences.
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