After 30 years of service, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is going to be retiring its fleet of three space shuttles next year. The final flight of the shuttle Atlantis took place in May, Discovery’s final flight is set for November 1, and Discovery will be grounded after its last mission planned for February of 2011.
The first of four test flights of the NASA space shuttle program occurred in 1981, followed by its first missions in 1982. When the shuttle system retires next year, it will have flown some 134 missions. Six shuttles were built over the lifetime of the program: the Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. The first shuttle Enterprise was built for test flights and was never intended to go to space, leaving five space-worthy vehicles. Two of the shuttles and their crew ended tragically with the Challenger disintegrating 73 seconds after launch in 1986 and the Columbia breaking apart upon re-entry in 2003.
The fate of one of the remaining three shuttles is known: The Discovery will be sent to Washington D.C. to be put on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The remaining two shuttles, Atlantis and Endeavour, are still up for grabs and Washington State is vying for one of them.
Seattle’s Museum of Flight is planning to spend $12 million to build a new space exhibit with $3 million coming from the state and the remaining $9 million to come from private foundations and individual donations. Currently, you can’t just park one of the rarest vehicles on Earth in virtually any ol’ warehouse. NASA has recently set forth standards to which such institutions must abide if they wish to house one of these shuttles; based on these stipulations, the climate-controlled, 15,000 square-foot addition to the Seattle’s Museum of Flight is a strong contender. Other institutions in the running include: the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
It makes my inner geek very excited to think that, in the next couple years, we could have what is arguably one of the most influential vehicles in human space flight history hosted in the place I proudly call home, the Pacific Northwest.
(If you’re in the area, I recommend touring The Museum of Flight in Seattle; for more, visit http://www.museumofflight.org.)