This week, space shuttle Discovery landed after a mission to the International Space Station. In September, NASA will send Discovery on its final mission. After 134 launches, the one in September will be the last flight for any space shuttle. Recently, Space.com reported on the retirement plans for these venerable vehicles.
Containing more than 2.5 million parts, the space shuttle has been called the most complex machine ever created by man. Operational flights first began in 1982. Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour are the three of the five orbiters created by NASA. The Challenger and Columbia shuttles were lost respectively in 1986 and 2003, along with 14 astronauts.
Much speculation has been made about the destiny of the remaining three shuttles. Currently, 20 museums are competing to display them. Discovery is expected to go to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Space.com reports that this will replace the test shuttle Enterprise — which will consequently be looking for a new home.
So who is vying for Atlantis, Endeavour and Enterprise? The institutions hoping to gain a shuttle are NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston; the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio; the Museum of Flight in Seattle; and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.
NASA wants to sell the shuttles for a mere $28.2 million, reduced from an original asking price of $42 million. (Delivery is not included.) Whatever museum lands a shuttle will have to pay for delivering the orbiter atop NASA's modified Boeing 747 aircraft from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Robert Pearlman is editor of collectSPACE.com , an online publication and community for space history and artifact enthusiasts. According to Pearlman, competition for the remaining shuttles is fierce. As he told Space.com, "Museums have staged public events, collected thousands of signatures on petitions, sought endorsements, filmed commercials, and have even traveled to Washington to lobby their political representatives. Some museums have even begun the construction of display enclosures, pledging millions of dollars, without even knowing if they will receive a space shuttle."
NASA is expected to announce the final homes for the shuttles in July 2010. This is to give the winning museums a year to construct and plan for the appropriate enclosures. Roger Launius is a senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. According to Launius, "At the Smithsonian, we want to take Discovery and freeze it in time so that 500 — even a thousand — years from now, there will be this orbiter that is pristine from when it last flew."
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