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.
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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."
Museums Seek Space Shuttles
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.
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.
Cities Say Why They Deserve a Space 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."
List of Museums Seeking a Space Shuttle
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:
Chicago's Adler Planetarium.
The Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Ore., home to the Spruce Goose.
Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium in Oklahoma. The payload doors for the shuttle were built nearby.
The California Science Center in Los Angeles.
Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History near College Station, Texas.
Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif. which was home of Lockheed Martin's legendary Skunk Works operation, which created many of the supersonic jets that paved the way for the space program.