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updated 4/2/2011 10:17:19 AM ET 2011-04-02T14:17:19

The spouses of two astronauts who died in the space shuttle Columbia accident have joined Houston’s vociferous campaign to win a space shuttle for display once NASA retires the orbiter fleet this year.

Houston, home of NASA's astronaut corps and shuttle mission control, is hoping to be among the few sites in the country awarded a shuttle for public display when the 30-year program comes to an end. Houston has stepped up its campaign recently as the competition has become increasingly fierce.

It's personal

Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon who lost his wife, astronaut Laurel Clark, in the 2003 Columbia shuttle accident, and Evelyn Husband-Thomas, widow of Columbia commander Rick Husband, recently made a trip to Washington to campaign for the city of Houston. They were joined by Richard Allen, president and CEO of Space Center Houston, the visitors' center attached to NASA's Johnson Space Center, which houses mission control.

"I was a spouse of an astronaut, but also a NASA employee and flight controller," Clark told SPACE.com. "I worked shuttle missions, I took care of the crews coming and going. For me, it's a real personal thing."

NASA administrator Charles Bolden, who is making the decision on which museums will serve as retirement homes for space shuttles, plans to announce the fleet's final resting places on April 12.

The announcement will come during a busy month for NASA. That very day, April 12, the space agency will celebrate both the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch, and the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight, the mission of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

NASA also plans to launch its second-to-last space shuttle mission — the STS-134 flight of the shuttle Endeavour — on April 19. After that, one more shuttle mission is planned for June. [ Photos: Shuttle Discovery's Final Mission ]

Heated competition

The competition for the retired orbiters has become intense, with 21 museums, science centers and visitor complexes still in the running. Some have mounted expensive publicity campaigns and released concept art of the elaborate displays they would build to house an orbiter. [ How to display a retired space shuttle ]

But to many in Houston, there's no question that NASA's Johnson Space Center, where so much of the space shuttle program's history has taken place, should be at the top of the list.

"The shuttle is finishing up its 30th year flying," Clark said. "This is really important that it be tied to a place where space is such an intimate part of our lives."

However, Houston's receipt of an orbiter is hardly assured. The space shuttle Discovery is almost certainly being sent to the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum in Washington, and many agree that Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where the shuttles launch and usually land, is also a likely winner.

"We're extremely concerned," Husband-Thomas said of the possibility that Houston may not receive a shuttle. "If Houston does not receive an orbiter at all, to me that's just a slap in the face of the incredible sacrifice and hard work — and for us personally, the lives lost — of all of the thousands of people who have worked there for decades and what they've contributed to this nation. I think to receive one would be a recognition of the sacrifices that have been made. I think that's why it needs to be in Houston."

Space city

Husband-Thomas and Clark pointed out that it's not just NASA workers and their families in Houston who feel such a connection to the space shuttle. [ NASA's Space Shuttle – From Top to Bottom ]

"All of our sports teams are named after space — the Houston Astros and the Houston Rockets," Husband-Thomas said. "The city is very proud of the space program, that’s why its nickname is the Space City."

Even the logos on the police cars of Houston depict the planet Earth with a spacecraft orbiting it.

The group bemoaned that the decision had become political. Many lawmakers and other leaders have written letters and signed petitions on behalf of their regions, and some sites are arguing their case based not on their connection to the space shuttle program, but on their potential to draw the most visitors.

"This should be based on merit and not politics," Clark said. "If you actually look at the criteria, Houston's got to be up there with the Kennedy Space Center. We both have been intimately involved with operations."

And he argued that Houston could hold its own in terms of its draw as a tourist destination.

Displaying the shuttle

For its part, Space Center Houston has some grand plans in the works should it receive a shuttle.

"We currently have a building, about 53,000 square feet, that would house the orbiter," Allen said. "The theme we're looking at for the exhibits is the human side of the orbiter, what the astronauts were able to accomplish."

Allen's not being picky. He said any of NASA's orbiters — Discovery, Endeavour or Atlantis — would be welcome in Houston.

"We think we could tell that story about any of the three vehicles," he said.

The center receives about 750,000 visitors a year, he said, and has hosted almost 14 million people since it opened in 1992.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ ClaraMoskowitz. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter@Spacedotcomand onFacebook.

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