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Science & Space
Space Shuttle Columbia

First space shuttle finds a new home

From Brad Wright

The Enterprise's new home will open for public view December 15.
The Enterprise's new home will open for public view December 15.

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CHANTILLY, Virginia (CNN) -- The first space shuttle is now a museum piece. First rolled out by Rockwell International in Palmdale, California, in 1976, Enterprise was towed into the McDonnell Space Hangar at the new National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport in northern Virginia.

"The space shuttle will be the central attraction in the space hangar," museum's curator Valerie Neal said Thursday. "When it is fully populated, there will be 125 other rockets, missiles and spacecraft in here, as well as some satellites, some telescopes and a lot of small objects."

Although the vehicle is called an orbiter, Enterprise never went into space. In 1977, the vehicle was pressed into service at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. Enterprise was essentially a test vehicle, giving pilots experience with landing the later shuttle flights and allowing NASA to do necessary checks on systems and performance characteristics.

The first shuttle space flight was in 1981.

Enterprise has been a showpiece, making appearances at the 1983 Paris Air Show and other sites in Europe. It also was a featured attraction at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans. And even though it's been in storage at Dulles Airport since 1986, Enterprise has been helping solve the problems of the shuttle program. Each wing was missing a section when the vehicle was towed into the hangar.

"Sections of the leading edge are missing, " Neal said, "because NASA borrowed them right after the Columbia accident to use use them in the accident investigation. Our leading edges were borrowed to refine the procedures for the foam impact test. They'll be returned to us in the coming year."

Another museum official said Enterprise has been a bank of spare parts for other shuttle aircraft for many years.

The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is scheduled to open December 15. The new museum contains many aviation artifacts that have never before been seen in a museum setting, such as the entire Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan during World War II.

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