Landing the last space shuttles

By April 18, 2011

The issue: Many sites missed out on the NASA tourist attractions

NASA administrator Charles Bolden can likely sympathize with Abraham Lincoln’s observation on patronage: For every job you fill, you’ve created 50 enemies and one ingrate.

Bolden was tasked with finding homes for the United States’ last four space shuttles, three that flew orbital missions and a prototype that was used for testing and training.

Twenty-one locations bid on the honor, accompanied by the vigorous lobbying of local dignitaries and members of Congress.

THE WINNERS: Flagship Discovery will go to the Smithsonian’s air and space museum annex near Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C. Atlantis will go just down the road from its launch site to the Cape Canaveral Visitors’ Center. Endeavour goes to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. And Enterprise, the prototype, will be displayed on a pier next to the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, now home to a sea, air and space museum in New York City.

One location that did not get a shuttle was Houston, home to mission control, the Johnson Space Center and many astronauts. And Houston does indeed have a problem with that.

Lamented one local observer, “Houston will have to settle for shuttle flight deck commander and pilot seats, an outcome about as impressive as winning one of those knockoffs of William Shatner’s captain’s chair on the Starship Enterprise marketed on eBay.”

Texans, especially the Republicans, saw the sinister hand of presidential politics behind the choice. Sen. John Cornyn said, “It is clear political favors trumped common sense and fairness.” GOP Rep. Kevin Brady knew exactly whom to blame — Barack Obama. “With this White House I always expect the worst and am rarely disappointed,” he said.

THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE mined a little more deeply into the politics of the situation and found less than meets the eye: “On the other hand, unsuccessful bidders for a shuttle included institutions from President Barack Obama’s adopted hometown, Chicago, Ill., and Dayton, Ohio, a key political swing state. California and New York are solidly Democratic and it’s unlikely many votes will be influenced there by NASA’s decision.”

But the Chronicle wasn’t giving up entirely on political motives for it being spurned: “That said, we believe Texas’ red-state status did play a role in Houston’s failure to land a shuttle. We think it was the wrong call.”

Geographic spread obviously had something to do with it, but NASA said the deciding criterion in its selection was which site would receive the greatest number of visitors. The four winning sites each already receive more than 1 million visitors a year.

The winners might find owning a shuttle a mixed blessing. Los Angeles and New York will have to pay NASA $28.8 million to get the shuttles there. They have to be kept in enclosed, climate-controlled buildings.

THE SHUTTLES are considered the most complex machines ever made by mankind. The Smithsonian maintains its artifacts in the condition they were in when they were working aircraft. In theory, you could get in one and fly it. You’d be crazy to but you could.

Considering the budget problems of both California and New York, Houston should sit tight because one day it might get a call, “Houston, you still interested in owning a shuttle because have we got a deal for you.”

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