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.