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Saving the space shuttle, piece by piece

In 2008, a NASA pamphlet mapped out steps for acquiring artifacts from the space shuttle. (National Air and Space Museum/NASA)
February 4, 2009

— With fewer than a dozen missions remaining before the scheduled retirement of the space shuttle next year, NASA has turned its attention to what should become of the orbiters, as well as the millions of shuttle spare parts that will be left over when the program ends. For the first time in nearly 40 years since the last transition from Apollo to shuttle, the agency is faced with deciding what should be saved as artifacts for posterity.

"Rendezvous," a quarterly magazine published to provide NASA employees with the latest transition news, recently addressed the issue of shuttle artifacts by interviewing Rich Wickman, transition manager for Infrastructure, and Lindy Fortenberry, shuttle program artifacts lead, as well as Valerie Neal, curator of the space shuttle collection at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

The following originally appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of "Rendezvous" as released by NASA.

What's an artifact and who decides?

Normally, we think of artifacts as objects from bygone eras that give us a window into what life was like in the past. We think of crumbling ruins, dusty relics from ancient tombs, shards of pottery and yellowed leaves of parchment. But what is an artifact, exactly? And who decides what's an artifact or not?

To NASA and the institutions interested in preserving the legacy of the Space Shuttle Program, artifacts are the items that best capture the human or technological achievements of the United States human spaceflight program. They are things that teach and inspire. And they are the "firsts."

The task of figuring out what should be considered an artifact is shared by a large team of people from NASA's Office of Infrastructure, the Office of Public Affairs, the Space Shuttle Program and center institutional offices, plus representatives from almost all the aspects of program logistics and flight operations. And it's also the people — educators, historians and visionaries from the nation's top air and space museums — who care about preserving the legacy of our spacefaring achievements so it can be presented to a wide-eyed audience.

Addressing the interest in artifacts

In 2008, an informational pamphlet titled "Space Shuttle Program Artifacts" was made available by NASA to help answer key questions and map out next steps for institutions interested in acquiring shuttle artifacts. In it, NASA defined the term "Space Shuttle-Related Artifact" as "those items having significance to the history of human spaceflight in the space shuttle era."

In late 2008, NASA issued a formal Request for Information — or RFI — to obtain input from "educational institutions, science museums and other appropriate organizations with experience in public display of space hardware and nationally recognized historical artifacts." In addition to determining which entities could bear the cost, including preparation, transportation and the provision of an appropriate venue for display, the RFI sought to establish how these artifacts could best be used to inspire American students and the public at large.

From Wickman and Fortenberry's perspective, the challenge often seems daunting. There are, after all, more than 1.2 million line items to be excessed, including the elephants-in-the-room: the orbiters and their main engines (flown and not flown). In fact, of those 1.2 million items it was those few iconic items that made the RFI necessary.

Finding a home for retirement

"In the August timeframe, we were getting a better handle on the transition and retirement budget," Wickman said. "It became clear that the budget would not allow NASA to bear the cost of preparing three orbiters for public display. So the thought was put on the table that we should use the RFI as an opportunity to see what organizations out there might be able to help offset the costs of transferring an orbiter to their organization."

Unfortunately, by the time it made it into the news, offsetting the costs had been translated by reporters as putting the shuttle on the auction block — something NASA has no intention of doing.

"We're not selling the shuttle," Wickman explained. "We intend to donate them to eligible organizations. But we will be asking those organizations to pick up the cost of moving the orbiters and making them safe for public display."

Wickman went on to make the point that the orbiters are $2 billion machines, so selling them for what they are worth would be pretty hard to do. Not to mention the fact that, since all NASA property belongs to the United States taxpayer, NASA must follow federal property disposal regulations, which allow eligible organizations to request that property be donated to them before it is offered for public sale.

And though they may seem a bargain compared to the price of a shuttle, the costs for safing and moving the orbiters are significant. Wickman offered a rough estimate of $42 million dollars per orbiter, which would include about $6 million in ferrying cost with the remainder divvied up among safing operations and preparations for display.

The devil is in the details

Aside from the logistics of acquiring, transporting and displaying major orbiter and main engine components, Fortenberry said the real devil will be in the details of determining what is an artifact and identifying its constituent parts — all its bits and pieces, in other words. She underscored the point that the 1.2 million line items that make up the space transportation system are all listed as piece parts. In some cases hundreds of these line items will come together to comprise a more complex artifact. There will also be smaller, less complex items identified as artifacts that may be single line items of property. Although the actual number of space shuttle artifacts has yet to be determined, it will surely number in the thousands.

Criteria and collections categories

While she and Wickman are focused on the complex logistics of offering and readying shuttle artifacts to the appropriate organizations, Valerie Neal and her colleagues are making sure that the items requested by the National Air and Space Museum are meaningful to the American public and add to the depth and completeness of the national collection. As she explained, the Smithsonian doesn't just "get" artifacts. There's a complex set of criteria that guide decisions about acquisitions for their collections.

"We look at our collections in terms of fundamental history, so we are always looking for artifacts that are related to major milestones in the history of aviation and spaceflight, or represent the people who made significant contributions to the era," explained Neal. "Historical significance is our primary criterion: What did this object or person do? Did it create a significant advance in the science and technology of spaceflight? Did it make or change history?"

However, fully understanding the collections criteria at the National Air and Space Museum is a little like peeling an onion. There are categories and subcategories, or layers upon layers, of collections. Neal describes it as a 'hierarchy,' similar to biological classification of genus and species.

"Our collection categories include spacecraft, spacecraft parts or components, spacesuits, engines, electronics, guidance navigation and control devices, crew equipment and scientific equipment," Neal listed. "And then each of those categories is further broken down into specific types of things, such as cameras and tools within the crew equipment category."

Then there are categories of significance and themes within the collections.

"Our highest priority is a flown artifact," Neal stated. "If not flown, then a backup. If not a backup, then a test vehicle. And if not a test vehicle, then an engineering model. But we try to stay as close to the actual flown artifact as possible."

"One of our themes is 'technological innovation and change,' which focuses on the inventions and the advances that mark genuine turning points in the history of flight (and spaceflight) technology," Neal said. "Other themes include social or political influence, such as 'what are the motives for flight and what are the consequences?' and war and national security, of course. The individuals and groups who have shaped aerospace history, such as the visionaries and the people who pushed the envelope, as well as the behind the scenes people who really made the space program happen — they all have a place in our collection."

So when the matrix of basic historical significance or technological collecting categories and intellectual themes comes together, that's when they know they want to pursue an artifact.

Not quite collectible. Yet.

Currently, the museum's spaceflight collection doesn't include much that represents the shuttle era, because not much has been excessed from the program yet. The space transportation system was designed as a reusable system in which components, such as orbiters, solid rocket boosters and other hardware, were used over and over again. However, the current collection, such as it is, has had a crown jewel since 1985 and on display since 2003 — the Enterprise test vehicle.

Neal and her collections staff are working to develop their shopping list of shuttle artifacts (approximately 250 objects, including a 'flown' orbiter) that they hope to snare for the museum's collection. Thanks to a "Public Display and Outreach Wish List" collected by Wickman's organization at NASA Headquarters with input from all NASA centers' public affairs offices, the NASM, the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, many items that will be of interest as artifacts have been identified.

Advance planning

Wickman and his colleague, Diana Hoyt, have also been working to establish a Space Act Agreement with the American Association of Museums to bring in a more universal perspective on how artifacts are viewed, what is important to preserve, and how judgments are made as to where they should end up. This kind of careful consideration of a program's legacy simply didn't happen in the years following the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.

"We're trying to avoid that by doing this planning up front, and also by partnering with interested parties so that NASA doesn't bear the full burden," Wickman explained.

The importance of preserving shuttle legacy is certainly not lost on him. He emphasizes that much of the knowledge and passion invested in the Space Shuttle Program resides in the program's workforce. He thinks 'shuttle folks' should be tapped to help determine what items are potential shuttle artifacts and what are not.

"I grew up with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo," Wickman reflected. "All were programs done in rapid succession and just a few years in duration. But the shuttle program has flown for more than 25 years and for more than 100 missions. It's probably the only American spacecraft that a whole generation knows."

So Wickman would like to preserve an understanding of the full capability of the machine, of the entire system and what it was able to achieve over its operational life.

"It is quite an impressive record," he said. "You're talking military and non-military missions, science missions, construction of the International Space Station, the deployment and repairs of the Hubble Space Telescope, and the luminaries who have flown aboard our space shuttle."

But speaking as an engineer, he marvels at the space shuttle as the first and only reusable space vehicle that was designed and built to be launched into space, return to Earth and land like an airplane.

"That's a story right there," Wickman concluded.

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