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Imagining First Flight

Imagining First Flight

Mach 1, Warp 2, the story of a historically based future.

It has been said countless times that many of our present-day technologies have been realized and inspired by the gadgets and gizmos seen on Star Trek and created by the show’s masterful, imaginative writers, producers and prop masters. Cell phones and laptop computers, for example. As much as we enjoy the realities of Star Trek's grand vision today, many times Star Trek relies on mankind's historical events as its basis for a convincing imaginary future. Case in point is today’s story about an episode of Enterprise called "First Flight." Cleverly written by John Shiban, and Chris Black, this episode tells the story of the quest for the first experimental ship to go warp 2. It is a flashback story that takes Archer (Scott Bakula) out of the captain’s chair and puts him in the role of a test pilot/engineer.

Back in the day, before we’d get an actual script we would get a beat sheet -- a rough write-up of what the next episode was going to be about. From there, all the departments would start realizing what had to be done for the next episode. When "First Flight" hit our desks in the art department we all went nuts. Just about everyone there was a fanatical manic about the glory days of test pilots and astronauts pushing the envelope, and this story was our chance to feed off of that magical past. Not only was it an episode that would pay homage to an era long gone, but it was also a way to honor the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia that were lost in an accident just a few weeks prior to this script coming out. Mike and Denise Okuda were the driving forces behind making everything as accurate as possible -- from the graphics to the set interiors, all the way to how the operations center was run. Jim Van Over went to town on all the motion graphics, Doug Drexler was working away on the CG sets and hangars. Anthony Fredrickson and Alan Kobayashi were busy creating artifacts and signage. Herman Zimmerman and Louise Dorton commanded the overall look of everything, following the fine drafting skills of Fritz Zimmerman and Ahna Packard.

Over at my desk the warp 2 ship was being realized. We’d already done a rocket launch warp vessel in First Contact and for this one it seemed logical to get the warp 2 ship up into orbit via a carrier. Remembering the days of Chuck Yeager and how his Bell X-1 would piggyback underneath a B-29 until launch altitude was reached, I decided that was where I wanted to start with the designs. The first vehicle conceived was the warp 2 ship itself and it was a redraw of a ship idea we’d come up with for the opening credits sequence of Enterprise. All the lines were perfect for this idea, so a few modifications were made and the design was ready to go. Next came the mother ship, which had to be based on something more present-day in terms of space architecture. So I called my friend Tony Moore out at NASA Dryden and before I was done explaining the idea he shouted that it should be based upon the blended wing body that was in the works out at Edwards AFB. He sent me over a picture from the declassified files and, sure enough, the blended body was the way to go. A few sketches later and we had both the carrier ship and the warp ship ready to go -- with some heavy homage to Edwards AFB’s past and present state of design, plus a futuristic twist thrown in to put it all in the realm of Star Trek.

Next came the big meeting with all the producers and all the different department heads to discuss the ideas and determine what would make it and what would have to be re-thought. The morning of these meetings, we’d get the full script and read it quickly, make notes and, if time allowed, get some sketches done if need be. So when the meeting started, we’d all go to page one and walk through the whole thing page by page, and when they’d get to scene that had to do with your work you’d present your ideas and then the approval process would takes place. Based on what was said, you’d walk away to continue on or… to start over again. When it got to our turn with the warp ship piggyback idea, it was a brutal rejection and back to square one. Almost as quickly as the idea was scrapped, though, we were on our way to work on version two.

For the next variation, Herman and I used the capsule from First Contact as the starting point and a winged rocket plane grew conceptually from the nose to the tail. We tried another launch idea based on the sled track also out at Edwards AFB, where the ship would rocket across the lake bed on a magnetic track system and when launch speed was acquired it would lift off the sled a fly up into orbit. This idea was partially liked, so, with some location changes from the high desert to a forest setting, the same idea was used. But a launch ramp – which incorporated a homage to When Worlds Collide -- was established as the new launch set-up. Lots of fun was had on this one and some crew members from the real aircraft carrier Enterprise, CV#65, were used as extras. Tony Moore and Pete Merlin also got to come down and visit the set while we were filming. Directed by LeVar Burton and fantastically assembled by all the cast and crew, "First Flight" stands out as one of the best episodes of 2003.

And now let’s change gears to the latest in the Red Dress series. Laurel Rae of Tucson, Arizona, graces the uniform for this segment, and her sleek and graceful style really made for an awesome shoot. Laurel is an artist in every way and modeling is the creative outlet that she has masterfully conquered. Laurel always pushes her talents in new directions and is fearless with the new styles and themes set before her. Awesome work, Laurel, as always.

OK, stay tuned for my next column and more behind-the-scenes stories and images from the art department.

God bless,

John Eaves