IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The shuttle shuffle

The Enterprise shuttle prototype, currently on exhibit at the Smithsonian's

Udvar-Hazy Center, undergoes an inspection to make sure it can be ferried safely

to a new museum. Enterprise's departure would make way for Discovery's arrival.

Today's launch of the space shuttle Discovery represents a couple of firsts for the space program - but it also sets the stage for a series of "lasts," followed by a grand shuffle of space artifacts in museums across the country.

This mission marks the first time that four women have been in orbit at the same time, and the first time two Japanese astronauts have been in space simultaneously. But if NASA's current schedule holds, Discovery's launch will stand as the last to take place in darkness. And every flight going forward will be the last scheduled outing for each orbiter: Atlantis in May, Endeavour in July and Discovery in September.

Discovery is on the most clearly charted path to posterity: It's the oldest orbiter in operation, having entered service in 1984. It's also taken on the most flights (38), including the return-to-flight missions after the Challenger and Columbia tragedies as well as the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope. And now it's in line to be the last space shuttle to fly.

During today's post-launch news conference, Mike Moses, the space shuttle program's launch integration meeting, couldn't explain why Discovery has had such a leading role in the program's history. "I don't know what word to use," he told reporters. "'Voodoo' is the phrase that comes to mind."

NASA officials probably had that history-making voodoo in mind as well when they offered Discovery to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum for display. As far as NASA is concerned, Discovery is the only orbiter with a specific final destination: the museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, near Dulles International Airport in Virginia. But even that trajectory is a bit, shall we say, up in the air.

"From the Smithsonian's perspective, it's not yet a done deal, only because they need to raise the funds to bring Discovery there," said Robert Pearlman, founder and editor of the The Web site is a prime online watering hole for space history enthusiasts who are following the shuttle shell game.

NASA estimates that preparing and orbiter for display and ferrying it to its destination for exhibit will cost $28.8 million - and so that has become the "price tag" for acquiring a shuttle. Recipients also have to convince NASA that they have the wherewithal to provide a climate-controlled, indoor exhibit space for the shuttles.

About 20 potential buyers have responded with proposals. "Whether all 20 of those are serious proposals ... we don't know, because NASA is not releasing the identities of those who have responded," Pearlman told me.

Some shuttle-seekers are very serious. New York's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, for example, is soliciting petition-signers and enlisting the state's U.S. senators as well as the governor and Arizona's John McCain to go after an orbiter.

The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, is on the list of front-runners - as is Seattle's Museum of Flight in Seattle, which has been considering the construction of a $12 million shuttle-sized gallery as part of a "Field of Dreams" strategy. ("If you build it, they will come.")

The visitor centers for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas and Kennedy Space Center in Florida are also on the list, for obvious reasons.

"Kennedy Space Center is the easiest of the bunch," Pearlman said. "They don't really have to move it anywhere." The plan, at least in the short term, would be to refurbish one of the orbiter processing facilities on NASA center grounds to become an exhibit space.

NASA is due to make a decision on the destinations for Atlantis and Endeavour in July, and the selected museums would have to be ready to take delivery by the end of 2011. But the disposition of those two orbiters is just the initial round in the shuttle shuffle.

The National Air and Space Museum, for example, already has the shuttle Enterprise, a flight-test orbiter that never went into space. To make room for Discovery, Enterprise will be flown to a different museum - most likely one of the also-rans in the competition to get Atlantis or Endeavour.

There'll still be plenty of shuttle artifacts for museums that don't get an honest-to-goodness shuttle. Several sites already have full-scale shuttle mockups, such the Explorer at Kennedy Space Center and the Pathfinder at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

NASA is on track to distribute full-scale cockpit trainers to museums as well. "My understanding is that at least one is going to the National Air and Space Museum," Pearlman said. Unlike the flown orbiters, these mockups can be remodeled to visitors what a shuttle looks like on the inside. One of the mockups currently in use at Johnson Space Center, the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory, "has flown more simulated orbits in space than any of the real orbiters," Pearlman noted.

As orbiters, mockups, simulators and other shuttle artifacts filter out from NASA, museums may pass along their less treasured items to other venues - just as the National Air and Space Museum intends to move out Enterprise to make room for Discovery.

Some of those hand-me-downs could conceivably give museum visitors more of an up-close-and-personal encounter with history than seeing an actual shuttle. For instance, you might be able to take a ride in a shuttle simulator that was actually used by the astronauts.

"Ideally, people could experience what it's like to ride in the space shuttle," Pearlman said.

To experience what it might be like to see a retired shuttle, check out CollectSpace's gallery of exhibit concepts. There's a thread on the Web site's discussion forum that passes along reports about where the shuttles might end up.

For the time being, however, there's another, less complicated way to see a space shuttle with your own eyes: Look up in the sky.

Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."