The first shuttle ever built, the Space Shuttle Enterprise, never made it to space, serving only as an engine-less test vehicle. To add insult to injury, its in-air career was fairly short: both its first and last test flights occurred in the same year. But in at least one way, the Enterprise is the most successful shuttle ever built.
How? While its sisters have been busy in space, the Enterprise has been sitting in the McDonnell Space Hangar at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, to which it has been luring visitors since 2004. The exhibit is free, but parking, shuttle buses, ticketed exhibits and gift shop merchandise aren't. Without moving an inch, the Enterprise quite helps the center raise money every year, which contrasts rather starkly with active shuttles' billion-dollar launches and expensive, near-constant repairs.
Now, as the last active shuttles reach retirement, they face a different kind of mission. They'll soon be shipped to a handful of lucky museums, where they'll likely serve as new flagship exhibits. According to NASA:
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will participate in a ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on Tuesday, April 12 on the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch. During the 1 p.m. EDT ceremony, Bolden and Kennedy Center Director Bob Cabana will honor the shuttle work force's dedication, which has made it possible for NASA to take the next steps in exploration and retire the shuttle fleet later this year.
During the ceremony, which will feature an astronaut from the first shuttle mission, Bolden also will name the four institutions that will receive a shuttle orbiter for permanent display.
If you'd like to watch the announcement live, you can do that here.
The battle over which museum will get the shuttles has been going on for years, and 29 institutions have expressed interest in nabbing one of the decommissioned craft. The field has now narrowed to about 20, but it's a serious group. Some congressmen and senators have made lobbying for a shuttle for their states and districts a top priority, and competing institutions have submitted detailed plans--including elaborate renderings--for what they'd do with the shuttles if selected. Here's one from the Intrepid Museum in New York:
For an extensive rundown of the other competitors, check out CollectSpace. The level of investment these museums are apparently willing to make to build these exhibits is amazing, considering that the costs would come on top of shipping and disassembly fees, which will run a minimum of $28.8 million per shuttle, according to NASA.
And while there isn't a strong precedent for deciding which cities should get the shuttles, there are plenty of compelling arguments. New York claims to offer a tremendous number of potential visitors. Chicago's Adler planetarium could incorporate a shuttle into its public outreach and education programs.
But perhaps the most convincing arguments can be made for the shuttle's old stomping grounds in Florida and Texas. These places, after all, are the ones who stand to lose the most with the imminent end of the the shuttle program.
Photo: The Space Shuttle Columbia, about to embark on the first mission. Columbia was the first shuttle to travel to space. Courtesy of NASA.