Bidding for Shuttles: And the Winners Are...

  • Share
  • Read Later
Pierre Ducharme / Reuters

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off on a mission to the International Space Station at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 14, 2010. Six astronauts are aboard Atlantis for a 12-day mission

Nobody does anniversaries quite like NASA. Launches and landings and all of the other things spacecraft do may be governed by nonnegotiable variables like orbital mechanics and weather, but in NASA's world, they seem to take a lot of fortuitous calendrical bounces too.

The Viking 1 lander settled down on the surface of Mars on July 20, 1976 — the seventh anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The Pathfinder probe made its own Mars landing on July 4, 1997 — making the mission not just scientifically but patriotically noteworthy. The first launch of the first shuttle — Columbia — took place on April 12, 1981, thirty years to the day after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. The New Horizons spacecraft, which has been en route to Pluto since 2006, will not arrive and begin its close-planet observations until 2015, on — surprise! — April 12 again.

When the magical April date rolled around this year, NASA was a bit short of new cosmic events, but it could still play one very big terrestrial card. The impending end of the shuttle program will leave the U.S. with four decommissioned spaceplanes: Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — all of which have flown in space; and Enterprise, a full-scale, nearly flight-worthy model that was used for prototyping and glide tests but never got above the atmosphere. Museums long ago began lobbying to become home to one of the retired shuttles and NASA agreed it would indeed distribute its ships when their flight careers were over — but the contenders' qualifying fee would be steep.

Every candidate museum had to be prepared to spend $28.8 million for cleaning and delivery of the orbiters and to build a climate-controlled building to keep the ships forever pristine. That initial investment, however, could pay off in big ways. New York City's Intrepid Museum, which jumped into contention early, estimated that a shuttle on-site would produce a bump of 300,000 extra visitors per year and $106 million bounty over the long term in ticket and merchandise sales. Thirteen major bidders saw the same kind of gold and waged vigorous public relations campaigns over the past year to catch NASA's eye. On Tuesday, the space agency at last announced its choices: Enterprise, which is currently housed at a Smithsonian annex in Chantilly, Va., will move to the Intrepid; Discovery will take Enterprise's place; the Kennedy Space Center in Florida will get Atlantis; and Endeavour will go to the California Space Science Center in Los Angeles.

There is some wisdom in the selections. The Smithsonian was pretty much inked on everyone's winner's list from the start. As the nation's pre-eminent museum, with perhaps the world's pre-eminent air and space collection — including the Wright Brothers' and Charles Lindbergh's planes — it would have seemed oddly incomplete without a shuttle as well. The Kennedy Space Center is a natural too. Both it and the Johnson Space Center in Houston were in the running until the end, but it was always clear that two NASA centers wouldn't win. Kennedy is the more deserving since Atlantis spent so much of its time there, blasting off and returning home 32 times, with a 33rd mission still to come.

Intrepid is a bit more of a reach. Formally designated a museum, it is, of course, a retired aircraft carrier, first commissioned in 1943 and later deployed during the cold war and Vietnam war. It does have something of a NASA link — serving as the prime recovery vessel for one Gemini and one Mercury mission — but its on-board exhibits are overwhelmingly military. It's thus not a surprise that if it was going to get a shuttle, it would get the one that never flew. The fact that the Interpid did wind up on the medalist's platform probably had something to do with its high-profile — and potentially high-profit — Manhattan zip code.

The same lure of geography may have played a role in L.A.'s big win — as did a power team of influentials including Gov. Jerry Brown, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, all of whom got behind the bid. The museum is undeniably a first- rate facility — already home to a Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, and plans to build a massive new space wing. But other museums are worthy too and some of the ones left in the dust have reason to grumble.

Most of the great missiles and rockets the U.S. ever launched were birthed at the NASA and Air Force facility in Huntsville, Ala., and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center there gets close to half a million visitors per year and hosts another 35,000 at its famed space camps. The Museum of Flight in Seattle is less well-known than most of the winners but is something of a connoisseur's choice, with its thoughtful collection of 150 aeronautical and space artifacts displayed in a vaulted glass structure that has a sort of crystal palace feel about it. The Adler Planetarium in Chicago — centrally located between both coasts and wholly devoted to space science — was much more than a long shot throughout the competition.

But simple arithmetic — too few shuttles and too many suitors — meant that all of those facilities, along with the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, Dayton's National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, California's March Field Air and Space Museum would be disappointed. The shuttles will surely draw crowds — they were always magnificent if deeply flawed machines — and the winning museums will surely thrive. In time, the shuttle program as a whole will deservedly be remembered more for the things it accomplished than for the failures — two of them tragic — that marred their long careers. If so, it will make this comparatively quiet April 12 an important one all the same.