How Museums Fought for the Retired Space Shuttles

The icons of space exploration had long journeys from orbit to their permanent homes.

The space shuttle Endeavour rolls through Los Angeles on its way to the California Science Center. (Alex Gallardo / AP)

On July 8, 2011, the last space shuttle rose from Earth. With four astronauts aboard, Atlantis—billed as a space truck during its development because of its capacity to carry large payloads to space—delivered a massive pressurized storage container filled with equipment and supplies to the International Space Station. After circling the globe for more than a week docked to the space station, the Atlantis crew woke up on the mission’s final morning to Kate Smith’s rendition of God Bless America, which had been iconic in the 1970s when the shuttle was in development. Then, Atlantis returned to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on July 21. Three decades after it began, America’s Space Shuttle program was now grounded, and for good.

Several months before that last mission, on April 12, 2011, NASA had marked the 50th anniversary of the first human in space, and the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle launch. Between 1981 and 2011, the five functional shuttles of the Space Transportation System, or STS, flew 135 missions to space. Two of these five space-faring orbiters were lost to accidents; Challenger had broken apart shortly after launch in 1986, and Columbia, the oldest in the fleet, had disintegrated shortly before landing in 2003. The three remaining orbiters became highly sought artifacts as STS drew toward its end. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former shuttle astronaut himself, decided to use the April 12 double anniversary that day to announce the permanent homes of Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour.

There are more than 200 aviation museums in the United States, so competition for the prized artifacts was fierce. In 2008 and 2010, NASA put out a call to determine their interest in housing the shuttles, and 29 replied with an enthusiastic ‘yes!’ The organizations NASA selected would be charged with telling the story of America’s extended forays in low-Earth orbit. The shuttle is most fondly remembered for its role in the deployment and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope and for building and supplying the International Space Station.

Of the organizations in contention, many insiders and space fans figured that the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C., would get Discovery, the workhorse of the fleet, so that the artifact would remain the shuttle of record for serious study in the future. But Valerie Neal, the museum’s curator of Space History, wasn’t as sure. When the announcement came, Neal says, she felt “jubilation, because we had been hoping to be assigned an orbiter,” and also “relief, because NASA played it very close.” In that moment, she and her colleagues “let out a cheer and bounced around.” Bringing a flown-in-space shuttle to the most visited museum complex in the world was the culmination of her career of more than two decades.

Preparations for the shuttle’s arrival at the Smithsonian took nearly a year. On April 20, 2012, Discovery arrived at the Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex to the National Air and Space Museum near D.C.’s Dulles Airport. Eileen Collins, who, aboard Discovery, had become the first female shuttle pilot, was there. So was former Senator John Glenn, who had been the first American to orbit Earth, in 1962, and who flew aboard Discovery in 1998. Along with other dignitaries, astronauts, shuttle workers, and reporters, they watched the orbiter towed into the hangar. By the late afternoon, the space-nerds, parents, and eager children who had waited in the hot sun swarmed into the new exhibit that Neal describes as “the signature spacecraft” in the Udvar-Hazy collection. Over the first year Discovery was on display, attendance at that facility went up 20 percent from the previous year.

The National Air and Space Museum already had the test shuttle Enterprise, which was designed and used to see how an orbiter performed in the air and was never refitted to fly to space, on display at Udvar-Hazy. In the proposal to acquire a flown-in-space orbiter, the museum agreed to relinquish that test shuttle back to NASA. When Enterprise and Discovery were nose-to-nose at Udvar-Hazy in April 2012, anyone present could see that Enterprise looked clean and pristine, whereas Discovery was scuffed from its years of work on orbit. Enterprise, which had been renamed before its unveiling because thousands of Star Trek fans wrote to President Gerald Ford, moved from the Udvar-Hazy Facility to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. By July 19, 2012, it was in its new Big Apple home on the Hudson River and open to the public.

The space shuttles Enterprise and Discovery                                                     Anna Leahy, Doug Dechow

Before the 2011 announcement, Seattle’s Museum of Flight had already started building an exhibit space for a space shuttle orbiter as a sign of good faith, but it didn’t get one. Texas has served as the base of Mission Control for U.S.-manned spaceflight, but it didn’t get one, either. Chicago’s Alder Planetarium, Dayton’s National Museum of the United States Air Force, and Tulsa’s Air and Space Museum all wanted an orbiter, arguing that one needed to reside in the Midwest. No museum in America’s interior was given one. According to the audit report from the NASA Inspector General, international access, annual attendance, and strong funding played large roles in their rankings.

NASA’s top museum choice to receive a shuttle was the California Science Center, in Los Angeles. Five years ago, no one was happier than Curator of Aerospace Science Ken Phillips to hear that Endeavour would return home to California, near Palmdale, where all the orbiters were built. Phillips had gone to college with Ronald McNair, one of the astronauts who perished in the Challenger accident. To become caretaker to Endeavour, which had been built from spare parts to replace Challenger, became a way for Phillips to honor his friend’s life and accomplishments.

The transportation of Endeavour from Florida, where all the orbiters were prepared for their futures as artifacts, to the California Science Center was a monumental challenge. The first step was a cross-country flight atop a NASA Boeing 747. Two specially outfitted airplanes had long been used for transporting orbiters from Edwards Air Force Base in California, where they sometimes landed, to Florida, where they launched. This last journey was in the reverse direction, with stops in Texas, Arizona, and Dryden Flight Research Center (now Armstrong) before a final landing at LAX. On September 19, 2012, the double-decker configuration rolled down the runway at Kennedy Space Station and lifted into the air, circling to bid farewell to all the space workers below who’d overseen the launches of the past.

The more arduous leg of the journey, LAX to the science center—which was dubbed Mission 26—came a few weeks later through the streets of Los Angeles and Inglewood. People of all ages lined the streets to cheer for the spacecraft as it crawled along through the day and night of its final homecoming. Though many trees, poles, and signs along the route had been removed, the orbiter sometimes had inches or less of clearance as the tow driver maneuvered the spacecraft’s wings alongside memorial pine trees on Martin Luther King Boulevard. Endeavour made the journey safely, and Phillips was all smiles to welcome it.

This spring, after a ceremonial title transfer on April 12, the fuel tank for Endeavour—the enormous orange cylinder the shuttle is attached to at takeoff—took a cruise aboard a barge from Louisiana and through the Panama Canal, where Phillips joined it to make sure all was proceeding according to plan, and into harbor in Los Angeles. The tank, almost 154 feet long, made a similar journey through the city’s streets to join the orbiter. Two white rocket boosters like those attached to the shuttle’s fuel tank for launch will eventually be added to the Science Center’s collection as well. The goal for the team at the California Science Center is to put these components together so that Endeavour stands as it did on the launch pad. Phillips says he and the team of designers and fundraisers can make that happen by 2018.

Atlantis, meanwhile, has stayed near its launch home. A year after the shuttle returned to Florida from its final mission, it moved only a few miles to the Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex where space shuttle workers themselves can visit the orbiter they maintained over its years of service. Atlantis is displayed with its payload bay doors open—not an easy mechanical feat for doors designed to open and close in zero gravity, but one that allows viewers to imagine the shuttle during a mission in low-Earth orbit.

In fact, once Phillips and his team situate Endeavour to their liking, each exhibit of the three flown-in-space orbiters will demonstrate a different aspect of the space shuttle’s work life. Endeavour will point upright at the California Science Center as if ready for launch. Atlantis is tilted in a bank at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex as if in spaceflight. Discovery is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum as if it has just landed.

Each orbiter is “a star,” said Neal, the Smithsonian curator, “around which the story of 30 years in orbit can be told."