Two SUNY Buffalo State faculty members have boldly ventured where few academics have gone before.
Rebecca Ploeger and Aaron N. Shugar are among a select group of scientists and art conservators helping the Starship Enterprise to live long and prosper.
Ploeger, an expert in polymers and synthetics materials, and Shugar, a metallurgy and instrumentation specialist, spent several weeks analyzing and interpreting tiny samples of material from the model that served as the spacecraft in the original “Star Trek” television series. Their work comes as part of a Smithsonian Institution effort to restore the USS Enterprise to its 1967 appearance.
The 11-foot-long model – used in the filming of 79 Star Trek episodes from 1966 to 1969 – has been part of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum collection in Washington, D.C., since 1974.
Ploeger and Shugar received a request last summer for their help on the project. Buffalo State is home to one of just four art conservation programs in the country, and Smithsonian conservator Ariel O’Connor, a 2009 alumnus of the Buffalo State program, reached out to the department for help in identifying certain adhesives and other materials that had been used in constructing the model.
Ploeger, a longtime Star Trek fan who grew up watching the “Next Generation” series, was thrilled by the prospect.
“I emailed my family saying, ‘I think I got the email I’ve been waiting for my entire life,’ ” she said.
Art conservators may be known primarily for their work with paintings, sculptures and other fine arts, but they handle a much broader array of materials with cultural significance, including historical objects, photographs, textiles, ceramics, rare books, manuscripts and maps.
The Enterprise falls under a category all its own. With its giant saucer hull and sleek twin-engine design, the futuristic model inspired legions of Trekkies and became the enduring image of how a universe-exploring spacecraft should look.
“We’re all sort of in awe of it,” Shugar said. “We’ve grown up with this as the iconic space vessel.”
“That’s part of the reason it’s being restored with such care as it is,” Ploeger added. “There’s a recognized value and beauty in it.”
Shugar and Ploeger appreciated the opportunity to be associated with preserving the Enterprise, especially since Hollywood no longer bothers to make such elaborate physical models for its productions, thanks to new technology.
“They don’t do this anymore,” Shugar said. “It’s all digital. So the link to the past that comes with this piece is special because it just isn’t done anymore or won’t be done anymore.”
The two scientists explained their work as they sat inside a third-floor laboratory in Rockwell Hall where they conducted tests on the Enterprise samples.
The laboratory features the kind of high-tech equipment that could just as easily be found in an FBI forensics lab, including a molecular microscopy, a spectrometer that shines infrared light to help scientists determine the chemical makeup of a material and an X-ray fluorescene machine that analyzes elements in a sample.
A FedEx package with six small glass tubes of Enterprise samples arrived at the college last July from the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, where the model was disassembled.
The Enterprise model wasn’t necessarily built to last, and its age was starting to show. To do a proper restoration, conservators needed to know the original materials used in constructing the model, including any bonding agents.
“If they have to dismantle something, and they don’t know what the right glue is, they may use the wrong solvent to take it apart,” Shugar said.
Ploeger and Shugar determined that one of the glues, a sample of which was taken from the secondary hull of the Enterprise model, was made from an animal skin, fortified with barium, strontium and calcium. Such glue is soluble in water and tends to be fairly brittle, which could be a potential source of problems in the future.
“Part of (our work) is to characterize the original materials used. It’s a technical study,” Shugar said.
The restoration, overseen by Malcolm Collum, a 1995 alumnus of Buffalo State’s art conservation program, kicked into a higher gear in recent weeks. Collum is chief conservator of the National Air and Space Museum. Ultimately, the work will include the installation of LED lights to replace burned-out incandescent bulbs, new structural support for the ship’s sagging secondary hull and a repainting, using precisely matched paints.
The National Air and Space Museum expects the Enterprise to go back on display in July, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of the “Star Trek” pilot episode.