Let me begin with: NYC, really?

I was hoping that Seattle would be a recipient of one of the flown, retired space shuttles, but with nearly 30 museums competing for, in reality, just three orbiters (NASM was a guarantee, KSC was a shoe-in), it was going to be a tight competition.


Seattle was one of a handful of competing museums that met all of the requirements from NASA on acquiring a space shuttle:


Here are the lists of requirements, as defined by NASA in 2008:

  • Air ferry of Orbiters by Shuttle Carrier Aircraft would require U. S. destination airports to have 8,000 to 10,000 feet runways depending on the altitude and atmospheric temperature of the landing site, and the final weight of the Orbiters being delivered.
  • A recipient will be required to take delivery of an Orbiter between July and December 2011, six months earlier than the May 2012 date included in the December, 2008 RFI.  The first Orbiter is scheduled to be delivered in July 2011, with the other Orbiter(s) to follow later.
  • A suitable climate-controlled indoor facility must be available to house the Orbiter when delivered. 
  • The cost to complete display preparation for each Orbiter and ferry the Orbiter to its ultimate display location is updated to $28.8 million.
  • define: What is the benefit to the Nation of displaying a Space Shuttle Orbiter and/or SSME at your facility
  • Provide the techniques and interpretive strategies that you would use to enhance the display of these artifacts and increase the public's ability to understand the Nation's space exploration agenda.

The Museum of Flight clearly meets all of these, and I would imagine that most museums meet a good portion of these requirements, however the one requirement that seems to be a show-stopper for most museums is the runway requirement, seconded by having a proper facility to store them in the time frame defined by NASA.

The Runway Requirement

Air ferry of Orbiters by Shuttle Carrier Aircraft would require U. S. destination airports to have 8,000 to 10,000 feet runways depending on the altitude and atmospheric temperature of the landing site, and the final weight of the Orbiters being delivered.

The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum is located on the Hudson River. The California Science Center is located near the LA Coliseum, which is at least 10 miles from the nearest runway capable of supporting the 747 (LAX). Are they planning to dismantle the orbiters at a local airport then transport the pieces to the museums? That seems like absolute sacrilege to me. It is like washing that game-worn Gretzky jersey.

The Building Requirement

The Intrepid Museum has an advantage in timing here, as the Enterprise is already safed for static display, being a current display at the National Air and Space Museum. They can move it when they are ready, which means they don't really have to fall under the tight timeline issues. So if they don't have a building ready, they have a bit of time to do so. The Museum of Flight has already commenced construction of the building for a shuttle and was set to complete it by the August 2011 timeline. A great article that summarizes the major museum contenders' intended display plans for a potentially awarded orbiters can be found at UniverseToday.com


I would equate the Museum of Flight's space flight heritage to that of the California Science Center's. Both have adjacent aerospace contractors that have contributed heavily to American space flight and the Space Shuttle program specifically. Seattle has Boeing, and the LA area has countless contractors: Hughes, Lockheed, Grumman and many others, not to mention Edwards AFB, whose amazing contribution to aerospace will always be known.

I'm not exactly sure what Manhattan has contributed directly to manned space flight. They surely fit the public outreach and visibility requirement, but so does the Smithsonian, only 260 miles away, readily reachable by train or car, as the Udvar-Hazy center has been and always will be. Two space shuttle orbiters located within 260 miles of each other seems a but unfair, especially to the city of Houston.

Houston, we have a problem

While I'm obviously biased towards the Museum of Flight (I'm an annual pass holder, in fact), I have to say that if Johnson Space Center were to have received one instead of Seattle, I would be OK with that, as they more than deserve one. Kennedy Space Center obviously warrants an orbiter, as does the NASM. Other strong contenders included National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio (which also faces the runway issue (Wright-Paterson's runways are closed) and the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL, which has no adjacent airport as well.

The Johnson Space Center in Houston not only lost the bid for an orbiter, the full-size mockups located there for astronaut training were distributed to other museums, so they were, in effect, "double-snubbed" by NASA. Most people incorrectly assume that Mission Control is located at Kennedy. However, only the launch portion of that duty is handled at KSC, the actual ongoing mission handling is located in Houston, and has been since the Gemini days (1965). Astronaut training all occurs at JSC. Their immense contribution to the space program is obvious, except to everyone at NASA. There is a great article at Gizmodo.com about Houston's impact on the space program, called "Houston Deserved A Damn Space Shuttle".

It would appear that the requirements set forth by NASA were a bit loose. I believe the runway requirement could be interpreted as where the shuttle would arrive by 747, ending NASA's responsibility for handling the orbiters. The logistics and cost of getting the orbiters from the airport to the museum would fall entirely on the museum, on top of the $28 million safing and transport fee imposed by NASA.

Here's how I would have disseminated the orbiters, in two ways, biased (toward the Museum of Flight) and unbiased:

Biased distribution:

  1. Discovery - National Air and Space Museum
  2. Atlantis - Kennedy Space Center
  3. Endeavour - Museum of Flight (Seattle)
  4. Enterprise - Johnson Space Center*
  5. Full-length Mockup - California Science Center*

* dismantled/rebuilt

In this scenario, only the Enterprise and mockup would need to be dismantled, and the deserving regions would receive an orbiter. 

Un-biased distribution:

  1. Discovery - National Air and Space Museum
  2. Atlantis - Kennedy Space Center
  3. Endeavour - Johnson Space Center*
  4. Enterprise - Museum of Flight (Seattle)
  5. Full-length Mockup - California Science Center*

* dismantled/rebuilt

The CSC could receive the mockup and have it dismantled and rebuilt in their museum. Seattle could receive their orbiter intact. The only dismantled orbiter would be Endeavor delivered to JSC.

As awarded:

  1. Discovery - NASM
  2. Atlantis - KSC
  3. Endeavour - California Science Center*
  4. Enterprise - Intrepid Sea, Air and Sky Museum*
  5. Full-length mockup - Museum of Flight (Seattle)*

* dismantled/rebuilt

The actual distribution means that the Mockup, Enterprise and Endeavour will all have to be dismantled and reassembled at their destinations.

I'm sure there will be some political fall out from this. I heard that a Senator from Ohio was so dismayed that he's petitioning the GAO to investigate the distribution. Unfortunately, it its highly unlikely that an announcement of this magnitude will be revoked from any recipient.

In the end I'm happy for KSC and the NASM for receiving their well-deserved orbiters. Like any museum that receives them, they will become the flagship of those installations and draw thousands upon thousands of people to see them, which will increase awareness in manned and unmanned space exploration. I am surprised at the Intrepid's receiving of one and very surprised by the black sheep, California Science Center most of all, but in the end they will have loving homes, even though it might mean getting cut apart and put back together first.