Cheers erupted from the staff at the National Air & Space Museum yesterday afternoon as NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, over a live feed from Kennedy Space Center, officially announced that space shuttle Discovery will find a new home at the Udvar-Hazy Center.
The staff at Air & Space cheers as the announcement is made. Photo by Heather Goss.
Although this choice had been assumed by many for months, NASA took its time in making its final decisions, most likely because homes for the other three shuttles -- Atlantis, Endeavour, and the test shuttle Enterprise, currently at Udvar-Hazy -- had yet to be found. A flurry of proposals were created from museums coast-to-coast, with amazing architectural plans for new hangars that would house the shuttles. But now we know: Atlantis will go to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Endeavour to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, and perhaps the dark horse winner, Enterprise to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York. Rumors flew yesterday morning that Johnson Space Center in Houston was confirmed as one of the three locations; when Bolden announced Enterprise would go to New York, astonished listeners at Air and Space gasped and said "Wow, I didn't see that coming."
NASA picked an auspicious day to make the announcement. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the first spaceflight, made by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. His flight, in Vostok 1, made one orbit of the planet and lasted 108 minutes. Yesterday was a special day for the U.S. space program as well, marking the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight. Space shuttle Columbia held a crew of two and flew for just over 54 hours in space, making final tests of the shuttle's spaceworthiness. When Columbia landed at Edwards Air Force base two days later, the flight was considered a success, and the shuttles have since been the workhorse for our new place in low-Earth orbit, carrying up the pieces that now make up the International Space Station and launching the Hubble Space Telescope, among many other achievements.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden speaking from Kennedy Space Center yesterday.
Discovery made its final journey in February and is currently being processed, so don't expect to see it at Air & Space until late 2011 or early 2012. The museum specifically requested the Discovery orbiter a few years ago to carry on the "tradition of being the official archive for so many historic icons of aviation" -- it will join the Wright Flyer and Spirit of St. Louis, among other peers. "There are so many firsts attached to Discovery," said Valerie Neal, curator for human spaceflight. Indeed, it flew the first female commander, Colonel Eileen Collins and the first African-American commander Colonel Frederick Gregory. It was also the first shuttle to return to space after the Challenger and Columbia tragedies. Discovery has more days in space than any other shuttle: over 300 days and 5,000 orbits around the planet.
Discovery is likely not the only piece of the shuttle program coming to D.C. Senior astronomy and space sciences curator David DeVorkin said there are many thousands of pieces -- tools, instruments, and the like -- to be allotted as well. The museum hopes to acquire some tools that were used to fix the Hubble Space Telescope for the national collection, but noted that it's important to "be discerning," careful to take only what they have the manpower to take care of properly, and above all, collect "what makes the best story."
During the live feed from Kennedy Space Center, Administrator Bolden choked back tears as he spoke of the end of the shuttle program, speaking of it as a "love affair that's hard to put into words," and noting it as an example that "there's no limit to what we can do when we work together with international partners and set a common goal among diverse and sometimes discordant nations." He insisted that we need to "stay focused" -- indeed, there are still two more flights, Endeavour on April 29 and Atlantis on June 28 -- and vehemently insisted that this is not the end of American human spaceflight.
This story also appears at DCist.