A new space race is on and the competition is vicious. We're not talking about putting a man or woman on the moon or Mars but museums duking it out over which one gets to house the retiring space shuttles.
Millions of dollars are at stake and the battle is shaping up to be one of the fiercest in museum history.
There are only two more missions of the space shuttle left. After that, NASA plans to give its three shuttles -- Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour -- to museums for preservation.
The problem is that 21 institutions across the nation are seeking the three spacecraft.
"This is among the rarest of aerospace artifacts," said Mike Bush, director of marketing at Seattle's Museum of Flight, one of the 21 locations hoping to get a shuttle.
Museums are always looking for bigger and better exhibits to draw in new visitors. Art museums put on blockbuster shows featuring well-known artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse that help sell tickets and sell goods in the gift shop. For an air and space or science museum, landing a space shuttle would be the Holy Grail of attractions.
"There's no doubt that an artifact like this can help build a little bit more [financial] sustainability," said Susan Marenoff, executive director of New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, which is also seeking a shuttle.
NASA won't say when it will select the museums, just that the shuttles would be delivered sometime after July of 2011.
"It's a very alluring object," said Robert Pearlman, editor and founder of collectSPACE, a news site for space history enthusiasts. "I can't think of another comparable competition in the aviation and space world."
Pearlman said millions of visitors are likely to pay admission costs to see the shuttles, especially during the first few years.
"It's an icon. The space shuttle is instantly recognizable," he said. "Certainly, it's a draw on to its own. People will make a trip out of their way to see the vehicle."
The last time aeronautical museums fought so hard for a piece of history was a few years ago when Air France and British Airways gave away 13 of the remaining Concorde airplanes.
"We've never experienced anything like this with such great demand for so few orbiters," said Andrea Farmer, a spokeswoman for Kennedy Space Center. The Florida center has been the launch site of all 132 space shuttle missions plus dozens of other space missions.
"We would be very disappointed if Kennedy Space Center weren't selected. Millions of people have seen the launches from here. There's a great emotional connection," Farmer said.
NASA has offered Discovery to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, which currently houses Enterprise, an experimental shuttle that was used for landing tests but never went into space. If the Smithsonian takes Discovery, the oldest of the remaining orbiters, it is likely to let NASA donate Enterprise to another museum.
Institutions aren't publicly saying this, but clearly Atlantis and Endeavour are the big draws, with Enterprise being a consolation prize to a third museum.
"Twenty-one institutions vying for two is even more fierce than what it was vying for the 13 Concordes," Marenoff said. The Intrepid, Seattle's Museum of Flight and the Smithsonian all got a Concorde.