Bolden’s Shuttle Decisions Not Loved By All

Space shuttle Atlantis lands on runway 33 at NASA Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility concluding the STS-129 mission. Photo credit: NASA Jack Pfaller

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has announced where the space shuttles will retire to once all the flights are completed:

  • Discovery: National Air and Space Museum, Virginia
  • Atlantis: Kennedy Space Center, Florida
  • Endeavour: California Science Center, Los Angeles, Calif.
  • Enterprise: Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, New York.

The decision has pleased some while angering others so much they want to make a federal case out of it. Before we get to that, a few thoughts of my own.

KSC is a no-brainer. The nation’s premiere spaceport has been home to every shuttle launch for 30 years, and the visitors center is an enormous tourist draw. Bolden tipped his hand by making the announcement in Florida; he was certainly not going to go down there and tell all those shuttle workers that they were NOT going to get an orbiter. Not if he wanted to get out of there in one piece.

NASM already has an orbiter, the prototype Enterprise, that flew only in the atmosphere. It makes perfect sense to replace it with an actual flight model. The center is just outside of the nation’s capital and is part of the the most visited museum in the world. So, no complaints there.

The other two retirement homes are a bit more controversial. The Intrepid is a major aerospace museum located in a densely populated city and region that gets an enormous number of tourists. On the negative side, NYC has no real connection to the shuttle program. And having three orbiters on the East Coast and the fourth in Los Angeles leaves the interior of the country without a shuttle. That’s a legitimate criticism.

The California Science Center was a bit of a surprise. You don’t normally think of the center as a major tourist destination in Los Angeles. However, it is undoubtedly true that Endeavour will land not far from where the shuttles were built and tested. So, it will be a very nice homecoming.

The decision has left a bad taste in the mouth for shuttle supporters in Houston, home of Mission Control, and Huntsville, where the shuttle’s propulsion system was developed. They both had excellent claims to shuttles. And their disappointment and anger is understandable.

The pundits are out there already, saying that these locations are being punished because they are in Red States that didn’t vote for President Barack Obama and fought his plans to remake NASA. Thus, California and New York were rewarded for supporting the President while other orbiters went to the key battleground states of Florida and Virginia.

The latter part of this analysis is clearly untrue given that NASM is merely replacing the space shuttle it already has and KSC is the program’s home base. As for the rest of it, this is difficult to say not knowing how the decision was made. If politics were a major consideration, then why didn’t Bolden put one of the orbiters at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, which is Obama’s home base? Or at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Ohio, which is another  key battleground state?

Bolden would have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had placed an orbiter in Dayton. No sooner had Bolden made his announcement was there a move afoot by Ohio’s Congressional delegation to get the decision reversed:

In wake of the announcement that retired NASA Shuttles will go to New York, California, Florida, and Washington, D.C., U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), U.S. Reps. Mike Turner (OH-3), Steve Austria (OH-7), Marcy Kaptur (OH-9) and Steven LaTourette (OH-14) today called for a federal investigation examining the site selection process.

The NASA shuttle disposal plan, affirmed by Congress in the National Aeronautics and Space Authorization Act of 2010, directs NASA to consider regional diversity and educational value when choosing sites. The law indicates that equipment declared surplus to the Agency’s needs should be offered first to other Federal agencies—including the Defense Department—before they can be offered to any organization outside the federal government. The U.S. Air Force Museum was the only Department of Defense entity to bid on a retired shuttle.

This request for a GAO investigation was triggered by the lack of regional diversity among the selected sites, and some of the selected sites’ plans to charge admission to view the taxpayer-financed shuttles. The ‘Disposition of Orbiter Vehicles’ section of the NASA Authorization Act laid out criteria for site selection, including geographic diversity,  locations that would provide for the display and maintenance of orbiters with the best potential value to the public, and locations that would advance educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Finally, eligible sites would have a historical relationship with either the launch, flight operations, or processing of the Space Shuttle orbiters or the retrieval of NASA manned space vehicles, or significant contributions to human space flight.

Yikes. Members of the same Congress that can’t pass a budget or give the agency clear authority to pursue its programs now want to tie up the agency’s top management in a lengthy investigation over museum pieces. Doesn’t anyone have anything better to do? Like passing an actual spending plan. Eliminating the Shelby provision. And implementing actual programs.

The shuttle is the past. Why not just focus on the future?