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Space shuttles trading spaces in Houston, New York City and Los Angeles

Space shuttle prototype Enterprise (at left), the replica Explorer (at center), and flown Endeavour are moving toward museums.
October 3, 2011

— Six months after learning from NASA whether they would be receiving a retired space shuttle for display, museums in Los Angeles, Houston and New York are moving forward – and around – their plans to bring the winged spacecraft to their facilities.

The California Science Center in Los Angeles will be the first museum to take ownership of an orbiter, Endeavour, during a private title-transfer ceremony scheduled for next week.

The prototype shuttle Enterprise, which unlike Endeavour never flew in space, isn't scheduled for transfer — by title or transport — until next year but the plans to display it at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City are moving.

And while Space Center Houston, the official visitor center for Johnson Space Center, was not awarded an orbiter, it is still planning to display a full-scale shuttle and in doing so, make room for space shuttle Atlantis to move to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.

NASA announced its selection of museums for the retired shuttles in April 2011. Endeavour, Atlantis and their older sister ship Discovery, which the Smithsonian will exhibit in Virginia, have been undergoing preparations at Kennedy to make them safe for public display. Discovery is slated to be the first shuttle to be moved next April.

No shuttle, no problem

Houston was not among the four locations NASA chose for a space shuttle display but plans are getting underway there to exhibit a full-size walkthrough orbiter and to build a new 8,000 sq. foot facility to highlight the space shuttle program.

Explorer, a full-scale replica space shuttle, will be moved from Kennedy Space Center in Florida (pictured) to Houston, Texas.

Explorer, a full-scale space shuttle replica that for years has been on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, will be moved to Space Center Houston. The lot it leaves vacant in Florida will be filled by a new facility to display shuttle Atlantis.

Unlike Atlantis and the other flown shuttles, Explorer will offer Space Center Houston guests the opportunity to go where the other orbiters' visitors cannot: inside.

"Of course, we are very disappointed we didn't get a real orbiter, but we're excited we're getting a shuttle mockup," Paul Spana, Space Center Houston's exhibits manager, told collectSPACE. "With the other orbiters, you'll be able to go up to them and see them but you can't actually go on board, you can't actually go inside of it. So we see that as being a positive thing about receiving the Explorer; our guests will be able to access the mockup on two levels: one on the flight deck and then on the mid-level deck."

"Not only is [Explorer] full scale, so people can get close to it and get a sense of how big it is — because there aren't too many places you can experience that — but not only that, you'll be able to go on board the orbiter," Spana said.

View inside the replica space shuttle Explorer's payload bay.

How Explorer is moved to Houston — by barge or some other means — and when it arrives is still under review. Once at the Johnson Space Center visitor center though, it will be displayed outside.

A nearby extension to Space Center Houston meanwhile, will house one of only two crew compartment trainers that astronauts used to train. Originally, that full-scale mockup was promised to the National Air and Space Museum, but the Smithsonian recently released it to stay in Houston.

Space Center Houston is hoping to pair the mock shuttle crew cabin with a real walkway that shuttle crews used to enter the orbiter on the launch pad.

"The white room and gantry from [Launch] Pad 39B may be available and I'm hoping that we get that," Spana said. "One thought, and I haven't discussed this with anyone, it might be nice to see the crew compartment trainer in the vertical position and have the white room and the gantry attached to it."

"We've got a very good chance of getting that piece and if we do, it should be pretty soon," he said.

Why the shuttle crossed the road

Meanwhile, plans to move the future New York home of space shuttle Enterprise have resulted in some members of Congress suggesting that the prototype orbiter come to Houston instead.

As first reported by The New York Times, officials at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum are now looking to display Enterprise in a empty lot across the road rather than on the pier beside the converted aircraft carrier as they originally proposed. The new location would allow the Intrepid to build a full museum complete with "classrooms and laboratories for teaching" rather than the glass hangar previously planned to envelop the shuttle.

Concept for the Intrepid's new exhibition center that will tell the story of the shuttle, and feature Enterprise as its centerpiece.

"It would be a museum on that side of the highway, which we think could be a linchpin in beautifying the area," said Intrepid's president Susan Marenoff-Zausner to the Times. The lot, located along West Side Highway, is bordered by a bagel shop, a car wash, storage warehouses and a strip club.

The move faces several hurdles. In addition to critics in Congress who have said that the late change underscores New York not being appropriate for a space shuttle, the land proposed for the museum is zoned for manufacturing and belongs to the State Department of Transportation. The Intrepid would also need to raise millions to build the facility, a project for which fundraising has yet to begin.

For its part, NASA has said it was aware of the change of plans and has been "actively working" with the Intrepid on moving Enterprise. "At this time NASA does not foresee any issues that would prevent transferring the Enterprise to Intrepid as scheduled in 2012," NASA spokesman Mike Curie told the Houston Chronicle.

Marenoff-Zausner told The New York Times that building a full museum would not necessarily delay NASA delivering Enterprise. According to NASA, transfer of the prototype orbiter, either in title or physical transport, would not occur before next year.

Transferring title

While the Intrepid works out moving Enterprise across the road, another museum across the country is ready to take ownership of its orbiter.

The title to space shuttle Endeavour will be transferred by NASA to the California Science Center during an Oct. 11 private ceremony held at the Los Angeles museum.

Endeavour's final crew including commander Mark Kelly will join museum officials, NASA representatives and local politicians to handover, at least symbolically, the shuttle. Delivery of the orbiter is not expected until next June.

On Monday, the museum announced a limited opportunity for 50 social media users to attend the transfer ceremony. Twitter and Facebook members have until 5:00 p.m. PDT (2000 GMT) on Tuesday, Oct. 4 to register for the chance to be selected for the event.

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