This afternoon, NASA chief Charles Bolden announced where the four surviving space shuttles will be going once the program ends later this year. It's a question space buffs like myself have been speculating about for months as museums across the country vied to be one of the lucky recipients. The results are somewhat predictable, but also arguably the best possible choices.
If you haven't already heard, the Smithsonian will trade Discovery for Enterprise,
the original orbiter that never flew in space (it was used only for
glide tests in the 1970s) and which has been on display at the
Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia for several years; Enterprise will in turn go to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City. The Endeavour is headed for the California Science Center in Los Angeles, and finally, Atlantis, currently scheduled as the last shuttle to fly, will remain at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
I said, I think this arrangement is probably the best that could be
expected. I seem to recall some talk of the Smithsonian wanting two
shuttles, so it could display the Enterprise alongside one that
had flown in space in a "beginning and ending" sort of display. While I
think that would be neat, it's also not very fair considering how few
shuttles there are to go around. And given that the Smithsonian is the
keeper of our nation's most historically significant items, it makes
more sense for it to have Discovery, the workhorse of the shuttle fleet,
over Enterprise, a prototype that never left Earth's atmosphere. It
also makes sense that one of the shuttles remain at Kennedy, the home
port of the fleet. (My hope is that NASA builds something similar to the
astounding and dramatic Apollo/Saturn V Center to house Atlantis.)
I'm somewhat more ambivalent about the Enterprise going to the Intrepid
Museum. I've been to the Intrepid and it's an outstanding facility, but
this means that three of the orbiters will be on the east coast. There
are many fine air museums around, and it seems to me like there ought to
have been one somewhere in the middle of the country that could've
housed a shuttle, so everyone in the nation could have relatively easy access to one.
In other words, they should've been distributed so there's one one each
coast and one in the middle, with the fourth remaining at Kennedy. But
looking at the situation selfishly, at least there's going to be one
near me in LA. I'm already thinking about a pilgrimage to see Endeavour
once it's installed at the California Science Center.
One final note: I'm sure it was planned this way, but the announcement happens to come on the 30th anniversary of the very first shuttle launch, the mission designated STS-01. On April 12, 1981, Columbia took off with only two men aboard: Commander John W. Young, a veteran of the Apollo missions who was the ninth man to walk on the moon, and pilot Robert Crippen, on his very first spaceflight. I can still recall my dad waking me up at the crack of dawn to watch the countdown and launch live, my frustration at all the delays and building anxiety because it was getting near time for me to leave for school, and how much I loved my dad for saying I could be late for school because some things are more important. Here's an edited clip of that history-making moment:
I loved seeing the white external fuel tank again -- they used to paint them, you know, before someone realized they could save a few million pounds of take-off weight if they left the tank its natural orange color; yes, I said a few million pounds -- and it amuses me to hear the cheering when the solid-rocket boosters successfully separate. All of this routine stuff was still very uncertain back then...