Monday, April 11, 2011

Battle begins over Space Shuttles

WASHINGTON - With competition fierce to land a retired space shuttle orbiter, the cities and states vying to bring one home have gotten creative.

Lobbying strategies range from a humble lapel pin to a videotaped sales pitch by a former president. There are pledges of extravagant buildings and millions of visitors if chosen.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said he'll announce the winners on April 12, the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle flight. The announcement will end years of jockeying by dozens of competitors, but it's also likely to bring more disappointment than celebration.

After all, only three orbiters remain and Discovery is already committed to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

That leaves Endeavour and Atlantis up for grabs, and 29 museums and institutions -- including Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex -- in the race to be a shuttle retirement home, each promoting their site with the energy of a carnival barker.

"That decision will be fair, sir," Bolden told a lawmaker at a recent congressional hearing.

The goal is to house the shuttles where they can be used as educational displays to promote human spaceflight and inspire interest in exploration.

Federal law says the shuttles should retire to places "with an historical relationship with either the launch, flight operations or processing" of the spacecraft.

That would seem to give the edge to KSC, which launched every shuttle mission and landed half of them, and Johnson Space Center in Texas, where mission control is located.

Bolden is expected to be at KSC on April 12 -- the same day he announces his decision -- to celebrate the anniversary of the first flight. He flew four shuttle flights, including one in 1986 with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando.

"One of the shuttles will have to go to KSC," Nelson said matter-of-factly.

The importance of making sure the shuttles are accessible to as many Americans as possible has come up again and again -- suggesting geographical diversity will play a role in Bolden's decision.

The chairman of the House space committee, Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, has joked with NASA officials that he thinks that's fine -- just so long as Texas gets one.

"It all started there," Hall said of his state. "There's a lot of heroes of this land that are based there or started out there."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., pitched the Intrepid aircraft carrier docked at a Manhattan pier. He said the shuttle would join a Mercury space capsule and a supersonic Concorde jet there, and could bring in 1 million extra visitors a year.

Ohio wants to house the Atlantis shuttle at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. President Barack Obama's proposed fiscal 2012 budget includes $14 million for the idea.

"While the budget request is not the last word, it is encouraging that the administration agrees with us," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

At a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing last month, lawmakers interrupted each other to sell Bolden on their shuttle retirement proposals.

Consider the Museum of Flight in Seattle, which gets 450,000 annual visitors, suggested Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

Rep. Steve Austria, R-Ohio, offered Bolden a lapel pin saying, "Land the Shuttle in Ohio."

An Alabama Republican recommended a particularly easy approach to the anything-but-easy decision facing Bolden. Maybe the winning state should be chosen alphabetically, offered Rep. Jo Bonner, whose Alabama district recently lost a $35 billion Air Force contract to Boeing in Dicks' district.

Former astronauts also have jumped into the fray.

John Herrington, who commanded a shuttle flight, is leading the Tulsa Air and Space Museum's bid to "Land the Shuttle" in his native Oklahoma.

"I hope Chicago gets the shuttle, and if we do, I'll fly it here myself," said Jim Lovell, a retired astronaut who flew on Apollo 13 and serves on the board of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago -- another contender.

Dicks' push to send a shuttle to Seattle is backed by Bonnie Dunbar, a retired astronaut who flew aboard five shuttle missions and has worked for years supporting the Museum of Flight's bid.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland mentioned to Obama last June that his state was the home of Orville and Wilbur Wright as well as astronauts John Glenn, the first man to orbit the Earth, and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

"Ohio should be a site for one of the shuttles," Strickland said in an interview. "The Wright brothers are from Dayton. The shuttle should be in Dayton."

With three Texas locations vying for a shuttle, former President George H.W. Bush recorded a video supporting a new museum building at Texas A&M University near his presidential library.

"Howdy," Bush says in the video. "I invite you to participate in an exciting opportunity to obtain a retired space shuttle and display it in an expansion of the Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History."

Some sites, such as the KSC Visitor Complex, are touting new buildings as an added selling point. The complex plans a $100 million, 64,000-square-foot exhibit to house an orbiter for 1.5 million annual visitors. The shuttle would be displayed as if in flight, with its payload bay doors open.

March Field Air Museum in southern California designed a space-exploration building with retractable doors that could be opened at night so the shuttle would be visible from Interstate 215.

Chicago's Adler Planetarium plans a space pavilion that would frame an orbiter with views of Lake Michigan on one side and Chicago's skyline on the other.

Seattle's Museum of Flight, which already has the first jet version of Air Force One and a Concorde, broke ground last June on a space-gallery building that could house a shuttle.

"We have our fingers crossed," Dicks said.

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