April 8, 2011

Shuttle Retirement Locations To Be Announced Tuesday

Twenty-one museums, science and visitor centers around the U.S. are due to find out on Tuesday whether they will be the future home of the retired space shuttles.

April 12th will mark the 30th anniversary of space shuttle Columbia becoming the first of the spacecrafts to embark on a mission.

Space shuttles Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour will cost a museum $28.8 million, which has dropped down from last year's price tag of $42 million.

The Smithsonian Institution is getting Discovery, which is NASA's oldest and most traveled shuttle that ended its flying career in March.  Discovery will go to the National Air and Space Museum's hanger in Virginia and take the place of Enterprise, who was a shuttle prototype used for tests in the late 1970s.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., a former shuttle commander, will announce the winners on Tuesday while marking the 30-year anniversary at Kennedy Space Center. 

However, the festivities could be delayed if the federal government shuts down some of its branches due to budget restraints.

Even the prime contender, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, is jittery despite its "knock your socks off" endorsement from NASA's shuttle launch director.

"We're extraordinarily nervous. We don't sleep much these days," Bill Moore, chief operating officer for the visitor complex, said this week. "Three of anything in the world, it's going to get awfully competitive. And three of the shuttles, I think, even raises the bar."

NASA originally had four space shuttles.  Challenger was destroyed during liftoff in 1986, and Endeavour was built as a replacement.  Then Columbia was lost in 2003.

Columbia was the first shuttle to fly on April 12, 1981, which was 20 years to the day that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to be in space.  Tuesday will mark the 50th anniversary of his flight.

Space shuttle Endeavour is set to take its final flight later on in April and Atlantis will close out the program with a launch in the summer.

President George W. Bush set all this into motion in 2004, and President Barack Obama continued on with the plan when he took over the reigns. 

Discovery should be ready this fall for its piggyback ride atop a modified jumbo jet to Washington.  However, the shuttle has to be drained of toxic fuel and contaminated plumbing has to be removed before it can go on display. 

NASA also wants to pull out some pieces for analysis in order to help in the development of future spaceships. 

Community officials are making their final pitches to score a shuttle and plans for exhibition halls are getting more complex.  Online polls are popping up and astronauts are also putting in their two cents' worth.

There are four widows and one widower in Houston from the fallen Challenger and Columbia astronauts that would like the shuttles to go to the Space Center Houston tourist stop next door to Johnson Space Center, Kennedy and the Smithsonian.

For the other bidders, "we suggest that NASA share with them some of the invaluable pieces of the shuttle legacy," the astronauts' spouses wrote in a letter to Bolden.

The Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium curator Kim Jones' dream is to land Enterprise as it gets bumped for Discovery.

"We're very hopeful. But yes, we're up against some big guns," Jones acknowledged Wednesday.

Other contenders for the spacecrafts include:  National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio; Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City; Museum of Flight in Seattle; and Alder Planetarium in Chicago.

Officials at each institution are giddy over the extra ticket sales a space shuttle would generate.

"There are so many good choices across the country, so I don't really want any part and I'm not going to make a recommendation," Steven Lindsey, the commander of Discovery's final journey, told The Associated Press from orbit last month.

Lindsey hopes Discovery is displayed so the "entire public can see Discovery as we see her, and as the people who have worked on her at Kennedy Space Center see her."

The $28.8 million price tag on the shuttles is based on NASA's estimate for transporting a shuttle from Kennedy to a major U.S. airport and for displaying it indoors in a climate-controlled building.  The cost will vary, depending on location.


Image Caption: Columbia on the launch pad before its first mission. Credit: NASA


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