March 8, 2011 at 8:28 PM ET
Last updated 12:12 p.m. ET March 9:
So what happens now that the shuttle Discovery has made its last landing? The most-flown spaceship in NASA's fleet will almost certainly end up on display at the Smithsonian — but not before it goes through a months-long round of technological taxidermy.
The first steps toward Discovery's destiny aren't all that unusual: NASA will put the orbiter through its routine post-flight maintenance, as if it were going back into space. But instead of prepping the space plane for its next mission, mechanics will give Discovery a major overhaul, turning the world's most complex flying machine into an unflyable museum artifact.
NASA has already figured out how to pull out all the stuff on Discovery that could pose a health hazard, ranging from fuel tanks and plumbing to thermal blankets that have soaked up toxic fumes for the past 26 years. The shuttle's main engines will be replaced with mockups built out of replicas and spare parts. The crew cabin will be spiffed up to look as if it's ready for flight, but in hidden areas, structural shells and skins will take the place of flight hardware.
When museumgoers get their first up-close peek at Discovery next year, they may have no idea that the space shuttle has been stripped down and rebuilt. "To the viewer, it will look as if the shuttle is intact," Robert Z. Pearlman, editor of CollectSpace website and a walking encyclopedia on the shuttle program, told me. "And for future generations of researchers, the process of removing all these materials has been very well documented."
Discovery's destiny is due to be announced officially on April 12, the 30th anniversary of the shuttle fleet's first spaceflight. Officially, Discovery's fate is a closely held secret. But the widespread assumption is that after putting nearly 150 million miles on its odometer, the senior space shuttle will go to the Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum that's right next to Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
Museum spokesman Brian Mullen insists that the Smithsonian is still "in the dark" about where Discovery will end up. "It's really up to NASA," he told me. For months, officials at the museum have been offering a statement so well-worn that it sounded as if Mullen had it memorized: "The museum is involved in discussions about transfer of the orbiter and other artifacts from the shuttle program. The final disposition of shuttle artifacts will be the decision of NASA."
But if NASA doesn't award Discovery to the Smithsonian on April 12, that would be a real shocker.
Discovery is the shuttle most sought after because it's the most flown and the oldest of the three orbiters remaining in the fleet (Columbia and Challenger, lost in 2003 and 1986, were older) — and also because it was involved in some of NASA's best-known missions, including the 1990 deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope and both of the "return to flight" missions in 1988 and 2005.
NASA offered it to the Smithsonian two years ago, but for a while it looked as if the Smithsonian would have to pass up the opportunity, due to the costs associated with getting a "free" space shuttle. NASA initially said any museum that was awarded a shuttle would have to come up with $42 million to reimburse the space agency for preparation and transport costs. That price tag was knocked down to $28.8 million, but the Smithsonian still reportedly balked. Congress finally stepped in with a legal provision last December saying that the Smithsonian would get a shuttle "at no or nominal cost" if NASA Administrator Charles Bolden thought it was an appropriate venue for display.
If Bolden gives his go-ahead on April 12 as expected, Discovery would take the place of the shuttle Enterprise, a craft that flew several aerodynamic tests in the '70s but never went into space. The Enterprise has been on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center since 2004. Giving Discovery to the Smithsonian means that Enterprise would be up for grabs, along with Endeavour and Atlantis, two other space shuttles that have yet to take their final turn in outer space.
"The Enterprise is an artifact under the Smithsonian's care," Mullen noted. "If we were lucky enough to get a flown orbiter, I'm sure NASA has a plan."
End of the shuttle scramble?
The disposition of Endeavour, Atlantis and presumably Enterprise is one of the hottest contests in the museum world. In all, 29 would-be exhibitors are vying to acquire a space shuttle, even though they'd have to pay the $28.8 million as well as the expense of providing a suitable exhibit space and getting the decommissioned orbiters spruced up for display. NASA wants to make sure the shuttles are better preserved than some high-profile space artifacts from the Apollo era. The prime example was a Saturn 5 rocket that was slowly rotting away at Johnson Space Center. Fortunately for space history buffs, the rocket was restored several years ago and moved to an enclosed, climate-controlled shelter, at a cost of $5 million.
The most mentioned players in the shuttle scramble include:
It's not yet exactly clear yet how much time would pass between a shuttle's last flight and its handover to one of the museums, but Pearlman said NASA would like to have the shuttles in a position to go to their future homes as little as six months after their final flights. Realistically, the job may take longer than that. "It looks like it will take at least a year for preparations," Mullen told me.
NASA spokesman Michael Curie recently said in an e-mail that the space agency was looking into scenarios that would require the space agency to hang onto a shuttle for longer than expected after retirement. "As a what-if budget exercise, we are looking at what it would cost if a recipient was not ready to take an orbiter right away, and if we wanted to keep an orbiter in long-term storage for potential engineering analysis," he wrote.
United Space Alliance, the contractor that manages most aspects of the shuttle program on NASA's behalf, has proposed using Endeavour and Atlantis in a commercial operation to resupply the International Space Station. That would short-circuit NASA's plan for sending those two shuttles to the museums anytime soon. However, the USA proposal doesn't seem to have a high chance of gaining NASA's support, particularly in view of the Bolden's plan for an April 12 announcement on the shuttles' fate.
The final, final journey
When NASA has finished decommissioning a shuttle, it would be loaded atop the modified Boeing 747 jet that serves as NASA's carrier airplane and flown to the airport that's nearest to the orbiter's destination, Pearlman said. Cranes would be used to lift the shuttle off the plane, and then the exhibitor would take it from there.
If the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex gets one of the shuttles, the job won't require a plane trip, Pearlman noted. And if the Smithsonian gets Discovery as expected, the shuttle would be hoisted off the carrier plane and rolled along Dulles' runway to the Udvar-Hazy Center. The same plane could conceivably give the Enterprise a piggyback flight from Dulles to its new destination.
"While all the other orbiters are seeing the end of their flight careers, Enterprise is getting a bit of a reprieve. It'll have one last carry on the top of a 747," Pearlman joked.
You might think that Pearlman, an enthusiast for space history and memorabilia, would be over the moon at the prospect of seeing Discovery up close in a museum. But that's not the case.
"I think everyone would love to see the orbiters continue flying," he said. "I'd much rather see Discovery go on and fly another 39 flights. I just don't think that at this point, with our national priorities ... well, I don't see that as a very likely possibility."
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