Space shuttle Discovery, one of three orbiters in NASA's space shuttle fleet, landed Tuesday morning at Kennedy Space Center in Florida after a 15-day mission to the International Space Station.
The mission was the penultimate mission for the aging Discovery, and one of the final four planned space shuttle flights before NASA retires all three shuttles at the end of September. Discovery's final mission in September will mark the final flight of the space agency's Space Shuttle program.
But retirement for the space shuttles simply means the start of their lives in the public eye. All three orbiters Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour are expected to be placed on public display at one of more than 20 museums currently vying for one of the iconic 76-ton shuttles. NASA's two other shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were tragically lost in accidents in 1986 and 2003, respectively. In all, 14 astronauts were killed in the two accidents.
Discovery, the oldest of NASA's shuttles, has already been promised to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., leaving Atlantis and Endeavour available for other institutions. Discovery will replace the test shuttle Enterprise, which has been on exhibit in the Smithsonian's Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center, in Chantilly, Va., since 2003. So Enterprise, which was built between 1974 and 1976 and was used for NASA's Approach and Landing Test program, will also be looking for a new home.
Some of the institutions trying to snag one of the other retired orbiters include: the Johnson Space Center in Houston; the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio; the Museum of Flight in Seattle; and the Intrepid Air & Space Museum in New York City.
"The rivalry may be unprecedented in space artifact history. In the past, the Smithsonian took ownership of all spacecraft and then loaned them to other institutions," explained Robert Pearlman, editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community for space history and artifact enthusiasts, and a SPACE.com contributor.
"With the two shuttles (and perhaps even with the unflown prototype Enterprise), NASA will decide who gets a shuttle... for keeps. Add to that the limited availability as compared to Apollo for example, when there were many more capsules to go around, and you have the makings of a space race among museums where the prize is no less than the world's first and most famous reusable space plane," he added.
Earlier this year, NASA reduced the price of its museum-bound space shuttles from $42 million, set in December 2008, to $28.2 million. Chosen museums will, however, have to pay for ferrying the orbiters atop NASA's modified Boeing 747 aircraft from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to their destination.
"Understandably, with only two of the three remaining flown orbiters available to museums the third rightfully headed to the Smithsonian the competition risen to match the rarity of the 'prize,'" Pearlman said.
"Museums have staged public events, collected thousands of signatures on petitions, sought endorsements, filmed commercials, and have even traveled to Washington to lobby their political representatives. Some museums have even begun the construction of display enclosures, pledging millions of dollars, without even knowing if they will receive a space shuttle."
The earliest that NASA is expected to announce the final homes for Atlantis, Endeavour and Enterprise is July 2010, which would give the selected museums approximately one year to raise funds and build the required indoor housing for the shuttles.
An important part of Discovery's exhibit at the Smithsonian will be the preservation of the historic shuttle, said Roger Launius, a senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
It's a big honor for a museum to get one of these objects to put on display," Launius told Life's Little Mysteries. "At the Smithsonian, we want to take Discovery and freeze it in time so that five hundred even a thousand years from now, there will be this orbiter that is pristine from when it last flew.