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Enterprise at NASM
The decision by NASA to move the shuttle Enterprise from its current home at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center (above) to the Intrepid museum in New York generated perhaps the most controversy of any of the shuttle decisions last week. (credit: J. Foust)

Shuttle scavengers

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Last week should have been an opportunity for NASA to look ahead into at least its near-term future. At the end of last week, Congress passed and the president signed into law a final spending bill for fiscal year 2011, more than six months after the year started—a level of dysfunction remarkable even by contemporary Washington standards. The $18.485 billion NASA will get in 2011 is more than half a billion less than what the administration requested, and nearly a quarter billion less than the agency’s 2010 budget, but final passage of the budget did alleviate some of the uncertainty about the agency’s future plans.

“NASA was directed to consider regional diversity when determining shuttle locations. Unfortunately, it looks like regional diversity amounts to which coast you are on, or which exit you use on I-95,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown.

Instead, though, the bulk of the attention lavished on NASA last week was firmly rooted in the agency’s past. NASA used the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle launch last Tuesday to announce where the remaining shuttle orbiters would go once the fleet is retired later this year. Discovery, which completed its final mission in March, will go to the Smithsonian, specifically, the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center outside Washington, DC. Endeavour, slated for launch late this month on its final mission, will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Atlantis, which will fly the final shuttle mission this summer, will remain at its home, the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Enterprise, the test orbiter that has been at the Udvar-Hazy Center, will be moved to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.

The announcement capped a long-running competition among dozens of institutions. In the months and weeks leading up to the announcement, the sites vying for the shuttle orbiters had ratcheted up lobbying and publicity campaigns, featuring petitions, rallies, and a wide range of endorsements. The competition also got the attention of members of Congress, many of whom pay little attention to space issues in general. Last Monday, on the eve of the selection, senators at an appropriations committee hearing ostensibly about NASA’s 2012 budget request peppered administrator Charles Bolden with questions about the shuttle selection process.

It’s little surprise, then, that when Bolden announced the shuttle sites during a ceremony at KSC, those representing some of the losing sites cried foul. The loudest protests came from supporters of the bids from the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, and Space Center Houston in Texas. Both objected to being passed over, but for different reasons.

In the case of Dayton, their objections were based on geography: by placing three of the orbiters on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, NASA had overlooked the rest of the nation, including the Midwest. “NASA was directed to consider regional diversity when determining shuttle locations. Unfortunately, it looks like regional diversity amounts to which coast you are on, or which exit you use on I-95,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in a statement shortly after the announcement. Similarly, Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH), whose district includes the museum, called the decision “a disservice to the Midwest.”

Texans, meanwhile, saw the decision as a political slight by a Democratic administration against a predominantly Republican, or “red”, state. “It is blatantly political. Texas is a red state,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) in a statement, adding that the four states that received orbiters had voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 election. “This oversight smacks of a political gesture in an agency that has always served above politics,” added Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), whose district includes the Johnson Space Center (JSC).

Supporters of the bids from those two sites also took different steps in response to the decision. Within hours of Bolden’s announcement, five members of the Ohio congressional delegation, including Rep. Austria and Sen. Brown, sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) asking for an investigation of the shuttle site selection process. “Specifically, we ask that GAO review how the disposition of the shuttle program related property carried out, and if NASA and the Smithsonian did so in accordance with all statutory and regulatory guidelines,” the letter stated.

“I don’t have a dog in this fight. I just want to do what is right. Houston is right for the Shuttle and NYC is not right,” said Rep. Chaffetz of Utah.

Texans, while slower to respond, did so on multiple fronts. Moreover, they directed their invective towards NASA’s decision to transfer Enterprise to the Intrepid museum in New York. While few could argue against giving shuttles to the Smithsonian (home to many of the nation’s most important aerospace artifacts) or KSC (where the shuttles launched), or even the lesser-known bid from Los Angeles (since the shuttles were assembled in Southern California and many landed at Edwards Air Force Base), the selection of the Intrepid, a museum with limited space artifacts and in a city not known for its space heritage (see “An Intrepid quest for a shuttle in New York”, The Space Review, June 28, 2010) raised more than a few eyebrows.

On Thursday, 18 members of the Texas congressional delegation sent a letter to NASA administrator Bolden, asking why JSC was overlooked. “We can find no logical explanation for this decision, and request that you explain the rationale behind the decision to Congress, the people of Houston, and the American taxpayer,” the letter declared. Most of the questions, though, required NASA to defend its decision for awarding Enterprise to New York. “For what specific reasons was the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York City chosen?” asks one question in the letter. “Are there any historical connections between NASA and the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum? Are there any historical connections between NASA and New York City in general?”

By the end of the week, there were not one but two separate bills introduced in the House to try and rectify the slight. HR 1536, introduced Thursday by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), would require NASA to give the shuttle Endeavour to JSC, with Los Angeles getting Enterprise and New York left out. “Instead of relying on political guidance systems, these decisions must be steered by history and logic,” Chaffetz said in a statement, saying that he wished “to restore common sense and fairness” to the debate. Or, as he said in a Twitter posting, “I don’t have a dog in this fight. I just want to do what is right. Houston is right for the Shuttle and NYC is not right.”

Separately, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) introduced HR 1590, which would require the Smithsonian to loan Discovery to Houston for 15 years. “Over the years of their history, they have readily loaned major US artifacts to the American people. What better community to host an orbiter than Houston, Texas,” she told CNN. (Left unsaid is how the Smithsonian would get the shuttle back, since by the time the loan is up it’s unlikely the converted 747 aircraft used to ferry the orbiters would still be in service.)

The case for Houston is a clear one: the area’s long history in human spaceflight, including the shuttle program, makes it a natural location for the shuttle. Many people in Houston, and outside it, argued that the city deserved a shuttle in recognition for all the work people there did supporting it. Their reaction to Intrepid getting an orbiter over JSC sounds like the refrain from an old Pace Picante ad: “New York City?!”

But that belief—in essence, a sense of entitlement—may have been Houston’s undoing. Former space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale, in a post on his personal blog, argued that “Houston is blasé about the shuttles” and that local officials made a “lackluster” effort to win one. “The movers and shakers downtown barely lifted a finger,” he wrote. “Houston does not deserve an orbiter because Houston doesn’t care.”

“This process has been as pure as I could make it, and free of any political involvement,” Bolden said. “I can say that until I’m blue in the face but there will always be someone who will have the opinion that that was not the case.”

Dayton, meanwhile, may have overstated its geographic case for the shuttle. While backers claimed the proposed site was within a day’s drive of 60 percent of the US population, PolitiFact found that the actual number of was significantly less: 42 percent (the 60-percent figure referred to the whole state; both defined a day’s drive as 500 miles (800 kilometers)). Moreover, NASA officials indicated that access to both national and international visitors factored into their decisions. New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and central Florida all are major international tourist destinations. Dayton? Not so much.

NASA, though, is hardly blameless in the reaction to the decision. The agency’s decisionmaking process was rather opaque, with a small team evaluating the proposals and administrator Bolden making the final decisions. In remarks at the Senate hearing last Monday, less than 24 hours before the announcement, Bolden even suggested he hadn’t yet made a final decision. “I am going to make the decision probably when I get back over to my office this afternoon,” he said.

He added that while he had briefed people “close to the president,” there was no political influence on the process. “This process has been as pure as I could make it, and free of any political involvement,” he said. “I can say that until I’m blue in the face but there will always be someone who will have the opinion that that was not the case.”

Still, some of his statements in that hearing were puzzling. He said that NASA would make a decision on all four orbiters, including Enterprise, yet the NASA authorization act signed into law last year states that the disposition of the Enterprise would be the responsibility of the Smithsonian should it get another orbiter.

Bolden also said that all the sites receiving orbiters would have connections to NASA. “I think you will find, when the announcement is made, that every place receiving an orbiter has an historical connection to human spaceflight and, in fact, I think you will find that every one of them has an historical connection to the space shuttle,” he said. While all four sites do have connections to human spaceflight in general, including the Intrepid (it was the recovery ship for Mercury 7 and Gemini 3), its—or New York’s—connection to the space shuttle is tenuous, at best.

The shuttle debate is focused entirely on the past, as if this is the last chance to grab a piece of the nation’s space heritage.

That gets to a root question: are the shuttles intended as rewards to recognize the efforts of those who served in the shuttle program, or as outsized outreach tools to reach broader audiences? If the former, than Houston would have been an obvious choice. Yet the language in the Request for Information NASA issued for the orbiters suggested more the latter, with questions like “What is the benefit to the Nation of displaying a Space Shuttle Orbiter at your facility?” That opens the door to less traditional locations, like New York or Dayton (or Seattle, which lost out in the orbiter selection process but, as a consolation prize, got a full-sized trainer to install in a gallery already under construction.)

The legislation and the request for GAO investigations means that the final chapter in the saga of the shuttles is not yet written, but even those pushing for a change realize they’re facing long odds. “This decision has put regional politics into play, and because of that, it may be hard to overturn,” Rep. Olson told the Houston Chronicle. And Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) gave a classic New Yorker one-word response to those efforts: “Fughgeddaboutit.”

Yet this argument, which has engaged a much larger number of members of Congress than is typical for space issues, seems like exactly the wrong one to have at this juncture. It’s focused entirely on the past, as if this is the last chance to grab a piece of the nation’s space heritage. Meanwhile, key questions about the agency’s future, such as plans for heavy lift launch vehicle development and commercial crew programs, remain subject to debate. Those issues, though, attract far less attention among members of Congress.

The shuttles are impressive vehicles, and will be a prize attraction for any museum. But, if NASA’s plans for both government and commercial vehicles are realized, there may be down the road many other vehicles—Orions, Dragons, CST-100s, Dream Chasers, or others—available to museums (and probably easier to transport to them than a shuttle orbiter). NASA and its industry partners may then be faced with a very different problem: finding homes for all these spacecraft.