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.
NASA is giving away the shuttles for free, but has several stringent requirements. The biggest, the museum must spend $28.8 million to cover the cost of decontamination and flying the shuttle to the museum on the back of a special Boeing 747. Additionally, the museum must store the shuttle in an indoor, climate-controlled space.
Seattle's Museum of Flight already broke ground in June on a $12 million space gallery in hopes of attracting a shuttle.
And every location is touting its own uniqueness. Seattle's Bush for instance noted that many aerospace firms built shuttle components in the area and that Seattle was once home to Boeing. He also said that 26 astronauts came from the Pacific Northwest.
The Museum of Flight is also playing up its educational role, saying that the space race inspired a whole generation of scientists and engineers.
"We're losing a bit of that," Bush said. "We hope to inspire the next generation of scientists and astronauts."
The Intrepid, an aircraft carrier docked in New York's harbor, notes that it served as a primary spacecraft recovery vessel during the 1960s. Ironically, it was the space shuttle's ability to land like a plane and be reused that eliminated the need for such naval support of space missions.
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio is seeking a shuttle because "throughout the shuttle's flying career, the Air Force has been an important NASA partner." Specifically, it wants Atlantis, which flew five missions for the Department of Defense.
Besides the Kennedy Space Center, two other NASA sites are seeking shuttles: Space Center Houston at the Johnson Space Center – better known as Mission Control – and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
All three facilities were given rockets from the Saturn V program. Although, left outside, they fell into disrepair and were part of the reason that NASA now wants a climate controlled facility for the shuttles.
The folks in Florida, in particular, are very concerned about getting a shuttle. The area is home to many retired NASA engineers and a place where thousands of visitors flock each year to watch shuttles launch. Another 1.5 million people tour the launch pads and other NASA facilities.
"The launch was born here," said Rob Varley, executive director of tourism for the region, known as the Space Coast."Nobody tells the story about the history of space better than here."
NASA isn't releasing any of the names of the 21 museums. So far, only 14 have publicly announced their desire for a shuttle. Besides the three NASA sites, the Intrepid, Seattle's Museum of Flight, the Smithsonian and the U.S. Air Force museum, they are: