Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Enterprise Imaging: To Boldly Radiograph What No Man Has Radiographed Before
Well, Actually, ONCE Before...

Few images are more iconic than the Starship Enterprise flying around the galaxy. One could argue that the ship herself was the real star of Star Trek. Of course, there was never an actual Enterprise, right?

Wrong. These are the voyages of the model ship that in a very real sense was the Enterprise itself, its 50 year mission, to delight and amaze fans and Trekkies of all ages, to boldly pretend to go, well, you get the idea.

Back in the days before computer generated imaging (CGI), to make a ship fly through space, one needed a model of the ship, which was filmed in front of a green-screen or starry-sky backdrop. Perspective and such was adjusted to make the model look like the real thing. Today, a computer-generated model (such as this by Doug Drexler, master Trek designer) looks more real than a real ship:

But back to the solid version. The physical model we all know and love was delivered to the studio on December 29, 1964. That would be over 50 years ago. Damn, I must be getting old.

The 11-foot model was based on a design by Matt Jefferies and built by Richard Datin, Mel Keys and Vern Sions. (Image courtesy Startrek.com.)
Once the series wrapped in 1969, the poor model was crated and warehoused in some dark corner at Paramount Studios until it was donated to the Smithsonian in 1974.

Spaceship in a box

You can see it wasn't in good shape, and extensive renovation was required before it could be put on display. In fact, the model was restored multiple times, the first upon receipt by the Smithsonian in 1974, then again in 1984 and 1991.  Until 2000, the model was hung by wires (which was not what it had been designed to do) in an upstairs gallery of Air and Space. The earlier renovations are discussed in this article from the museum. (Most of the photos on this post are from the Smithsonian as well.)

In the course of the renovations, the Enterprise was X-Rayed to reveal its underlying structure and to show the various stresses and damages from the rather improper display.

June 22, 1999, the starship underwent X-Ray analysis at QC Laboratories, Inc., in Aberdeen, Maryland, Frank H. Winter, Photographer.

X-Ray of the back of main hull...note the (gulp) metal tacks and the fancy light bulb! 

The model was moved from a real flight gallery to the basement of the gift shop, where it stayed from 2000 through 2014:

The USS Enterprise in the Air and Space Gift Shop Basement

We now get to the exciting part of the story, and with some information that justifies my telling this tale on a PACS blog.

The model is to be given a more prominent place in the museum, at the forefront of the renovated Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, opening in 2016, and it is to be renovated/conserved yet again. But before that happens, the Enterprise will undergo a complete analysis, including a full radiographic examination. From the Smithsonian's description of the latest efforts:

Notably, conserving the Star Trek starship Enterprise studio model has allowed some wonderful cooperation between different branches of the Smithsonian institution. In December 2014 and again in January 2015, Tangara Cross of the National Zoological Park arranged for Marilyn Small and Peter Flowers, two National Zoo registered veterinary technicians (and Star Trek fans), to come to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, to examine the model used in filming of the original Star Trek television series (1966–1969).

To give the Museum’s conservators a look inside the Enterprise model, Marilyn and Peter brought a portable radiography (x-ray) machine to the Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory, which is a behind-the-scenes work space at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport. Consisting of three pieces, the apparatus has an x-ray emitter that exposes a special digital photographic plate, which in turn communicates with a computer enabled with its own independent WiFi. But what really made it special was that this technology has also been used to examine zoo animals, even panda sensation, Bao Bao. (Talk about breaking the Internet! Consider combining the web power of Bao Bao and Star Trek!)

To organize the data, the radiology technicians/Star Trek fans first created a record for the “patient:”

ID: NCC-1701

Birthday: 1964

Sex: Other

Saucer as the “skull”

Secondary hull as the “body”

Nacelles as the “legs”

The x-ray apparatus produced images in a special format called “dicom” (which Peter explained, “makes a jpeg look like a pencil sketch”). To get each image, Peter and Marilyn worked with Engen Conservation Chair Malcolm Collum and Museum photographer Dane Penland to line up the radiography machine on one side of the artifact with the photographic plate positioned exactly opposite on the other side. They planned the overlapping images to provide a complete tricorder-like diagnostic of the model’s interior. As each image was shot, the digital plate communicated via WiFi with the laptop, capturing the image. To avoid a magnification effect, they positioned the plate as close to the body of the model as possible. They got the perfect exposure on the first try, based on Peter and Marilyn’s expert calculations comparing the probable density of the model versus the known density of biological specimens.

Working slowly, the participants planned the exposures to allow the images to be “stitched” together so conservators can get a more complete picture of the artifact. Our photographer, Dane, advised on how best to overlap the images so that they could be matched once the images had been taken back to a zoo computer to be processed. The composite image of the left nacelle shown here has been put back together by Museum conservator Ariel O’Connor. When printed at full size, it gives the conservators a clear map of the interior of the model, without disturbing any of the original structure. It’s worth noting how much the technology has improved since the last time the Enterprise model was x-rayed in the 1990s.

The x-ray process involved a lot of back and forth—literally. Marilyn, Peter, and Malcolm wore lead shielding to protect themselves during the x-ray shooting. For the rest of us, after backing away during each shot to avoid being unshielded inside the scatter range of the x-rays, we all rushed back to the monitor as the image appeared to see what was revealed. Immediately, we could see the light bulbs inside the model as well as finishing nails, electronics, and wiring. Some of the images were so clear that we could see the grain in the wood used to build the model! The results will help the conservation team to make clear decisions about next steps when assessing the structure of the model.

Radiographing the Enterprise for the 2015 restoration

Here's a video of the current restoration efforts:

So it seems the 50 year-old mostly wooden Enterprise model will live long and prosper, thanks in part to DICOM and advanced imaging techniques.  I'm rather amused at the complexity assigned to something we do dozens of times every hour of every day.

I wish the Enterprise Godspeed for her next 50 year mission!

1 comment :

stacey said...

They make it sound like they invented imaging protocols. And why Vet techs? Just to justify/demonstrate cross facility cooperation?