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Originally published April 11, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified April 12, 2011 at 5:02 PM

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In quest for space shuttle, Seattle faces stiff competition

The prestige of the Smithsonian Institution, the history of the Kennedy Space Center, even the emotion of Houston-based widows of fallen astronauts all are potential obstacles to Seattle's bid to land a retiring space shuttle as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announces his decision on the shuttles' future Tuesday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Shuttle decision on TV

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's 10 a.m. (PDT) announcement on which cities will get space shuttles will be carried live on NASA-TV (Channel 76 on Comcast in Seattle) and at www.nasa.gov/ntv.

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The prestige of the Smithsonian Institution, the history of the Kennedy Space Center, even the emotion of Houston-based widows of fallen astronauts all are potential obstacles to Seattle's bid to land a retiring space shuttle as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announces his decision on the shuttles' future Tuesday.

Still, officials of the Museum of Flight say Seattle would be an ideal home for a shuttle, and they'll gather at the museum to watch a TV feed of Bolden's 10 a.m. announcement, coming on the 50th anniversary of the first manned spaceflight, flown by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and the 30th anniversary of the first U.S. space-shuttle flight.

"I feel very good about the fact that we met the requirements that NASA laid out ... [but] we've got some other strong institutions out there," said former shuttle astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, a Yakima-area native who spearheaded the Museum of Flight's efforts to get a shuttle.

"We'll see how it goes," Dunbar said. "There may be some factors which are out of our control."

The math is simple: NASA, winding down its shuttle program, has four space shuttles to give away — three that have flown in space and one used primarily for testing — and 21 applications for them from museums and visitors centers across the country.

Among the sites mentioned as front-runners:

• The Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum has reportedly been offered the shuttle Discovery, though formal announcement is still pending.

• The Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the launching site for all of the shuttle missions and the location Bolden chose to make Tuesday's announcement, is regarded by many as a shoo-in for a shuttle.

• In Houston, home to NASA's Mission Control, four widows and one widower of astronauts lost in the Challenger and Columbia disasters have written to Bolden, backing a plan to put a shuttle at Space Center Houston near the Johnson Space Center.

• And a federal budget proposal from the Obama administration asks for $14 million to create a site for a shuttle at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Ohio.

Bolden, a former shuttle commander himself, is to announce permanent homes for Discovery as well as shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis, each of which has one more space mission planned, and for the shuttle Enterprise, which was used extensively in early shuttle testing, but has not been in space.

Museums in New York, Chicago and other cities from coast to coast have been lining up support, generating petition drives and drawing comments and backing from congressional representatives and local officials.

Dunbar, who flew on five shuttle missions, says she realizes a number of sites have historic and emotional ties to the shuttle program, "but in the final analysis it will come down to ensuring everyone's met the requirement laid out."

The Museum of Flight in Seattle is well along on construction of a $12 million, glass-enclosed Space Gallery, designed by SRG Partnership architects, to provide the indoor, climate-controlled site NASA is requiring for the shuttles.

In addition, the museum is heavily involved in educational programs, another priority mentioned in the bid process, and within the next few years will become the new campus for Aviation High School, now based in Des Moines.

The Seattle bid also stressed the area's aerospace history, the fact that more than 26 astronauts have Northwest ties, and the fact that Boeing 747s are used to transport space shuttles.

Dunbar was the Museum of Flight's president and CEO from 2005 to 2010, when she left her position to become executive director of Wings Over Washington, directing the local bid for a shuttle.

Even if Seattle doesn't land a shuttle, Dunbar said the Space Gallery is expected to be a popular attraction, including a shuttle trainer in which visitors will be able to see how and where crews learned shuttle operations. The museum also has moon rocks, an Apollo space capsule and a Martian lander.

Last week, all 11 members of the state's congressional delegation wrote to Bolden, supporting Seattle's bid for a shuttle. On Monday, Sen. Patty Murray reiterated her conviction that "Washington state would offer this national treasure a fantastic home in a community that values our aerospace history."

Making no prediction about Bolden's Tuesday announcement, Murray said "at this point I can only hope that NASA makes the right decision and sends a space-shuttle orbiter to the Museum of Flight."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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