Museums Battle for One of NASA's Retiring Space Shuttle Orbiters

On April 12, timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the first Space Shuttle launch and the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic 1961 spaceflight, NASA will announce where the three remaining orbiters will be displayed in their retirement. After 135 launches, the program will come to an end. The Obama administration and the NASA Authorization Act of October 2010 have cut a chunk of NASA's funding in an attempt to shift the development of space vehicles to private corporations. Until another U.S. launch vehicle is built, NASA crews will visit the International Space Station using Russia's Soyuz spacecraft.

Conceived in the early 1950s, before the Apollo missions of the 1960s, the Space Shuttle program was in the works for decades before the first orbiter launched from Florida's Kennedy Space Center. The goal was to build an orbital spacecraft -- the first -- that could withstand repeated use. Mission accomplished. Over the past three decades, Space Shuttle crews have been responsible for launching numerous satellites and interplanetary probes, servicing and constructing space stations and conducting various space science experiments.

Story continues after the gallery.

A Space Shuttle is made up of a number of large components, including solid rocket boosters and an external tank known as the stack. But the most iconic piece is the Orbital Vehicle, the large white bird that carries the astronauts and payload and detaches from the tank after reaching speeds of 17,500 mph. Over the years, six Orbital Vehicles were designed and built: Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. Enterprise, the first of the six, was specifically constructed for test flights in the atmosphere. Without a functional heat shield and engines, Enterprise is not built for spaceflight. Original plans called for the orbiter to be modified after test flights were completed so that it could withstand spaceflight, but design changes in the program made that impractical.

Today, Enterprise sits inside of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum's second facility, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia. Last year, engineers evaluated the Enterprise and determined that it is safe to fly on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a heavily modified Boeing 747 that NASA uses to transport orbiters. It could take flight once again as the National Air and Space Museum is all but guaranteed Discovery and, once that announcement is made, it's expected that the museum will begin preparations to loan out Enterprise to other institutions.

That leaves two orbiters unaccounted for -- Challenger was destroyed during a launch failure and Columbia on its voyage home -- Endeavour and Atlantis. They're in demand. In December 2008, NASA released a "request for information" to museums, educational institutions and other relevant organizations to gauge who might be interested in acquiring one of the retiring space shuttles. At the time, NASA estimated that "it would cost about $42 million to prepare [each] vehicle and deliver it via a modified 747 Boeing aircraft carrier," according to the Houston Chronicle. While the final figure is expected to be closer to $28.8 million to cover transportation, each interested group was asked to submit a proposal that included guarantees to cover additional costs: the orbiters must be kept and displayed indoors and funds must be provided for the ongoing care and upkeep.

Presented by

Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In