November 1, 2010
— Space shuttle Discovery is ready to fly its final flight this week, but where it will make its last landing is still up in the air.
Long thought destined for the Smithsonian, NASA's oldest flying orbiter may actually end up elsewhere unless the Washington, DC institution can find the millions of dollars needed to prepare Discovery for delivery and display, collectSPACE has learned.
The first of NASA's three remaining space shuttles set to retire after flying its last mission — STS-133, scheduled to launch Nov. 3 at 3:52 p.m. EDT — Discovery has been identified by NASA since 2008 as being set aside for the Smithsonian.
"The National Air and Space Museum has been offered the space shuttle Discovery," NASA spokesman Michael Curie told collectSPACE almost two years ago when the agency first announced it would award its three orbiters — Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — to museums.
Like the 20 other organizations that applied to NASA for a retired orbiter though, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum would need to pay the then estimated $42 million to prepare and transport Discovery to the museum, Curie said.
The cost, which lowered to $28.8 million in January of this year, is still beyond the Smithsonian's reach and NASA is not in the position to underwrite the cost, sources close to both the museum and space agency told collectSPACE.
"What if" the Smithsonian cannot afford Discovery
"At this point, we're not in a position to go down the 'what if' road," said Robert Jacobs, NASA's deputy associate administrator for communications.
"There have been discussions between NASA and the Smithsonian about the issue," Jacobs said, "but I am not sure they are on-going at this point because the process has been put on hold."
According to Jacobs, NASA administrator Charles Bolden will ultimately make the final decision, but he has tabled all discussion of where Discovery or any of the orbiters are going for museum display.
"We've had a lot of other things on the agency's plate besides where the orbiters are going to go," said Jacobs. "The agency is focused on safely flying out the manifest."
Originally, NASA had said it would announce the homes for the shuttles by the end of the summer, but schedule changes — including the delay of Endeavour's final flight to February and the possible addition of another flight for Atlantis in June 2011 — resulted in the agency delaying the news.
"They were pushing toward a decision, and [then] decided not to," said Jacobs.
The postponement has led to increased speculation inside and outside of NASA. According to sources internal to the agency, whether Discovery still goes to the Smithsonian changes on a week-by-week, if not day-by-day basis.
Inappropriate to comment
After initially agreeing to provide interviews in support of this article, the Smithsonian refused comment and instead provided a brief written statement.
"The National Air and Space Museum appreciates NASA designating the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum as a repository for the shuttle orbiter Discovery," began the statement. "The museum has been involved in discussions with NASA about acquiring Discovery and other artifacts from the shuttle program."
"It would be inappropriate to comment on plans, including funding, until arrangements are finalized."
As part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Air and Space Museum is funded by federal and private sources, including by endowment, contributions and from the profits realized from retail sales.
According to its website, the museum's annual budget is approximately $28 million — just about the same amount NASA is requiring to deliver Discovery — which covers the National Mall building; its Chantilly, Virginia-based annex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center; and the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility located in Suitland, Maryland.
According to NASA, the $28.8 million being asked is not a price tag, but rather is the sum of two component costs: $8.3 million to ferry the orbiter atop NASA's modified Boeing 747 shuttle carrier aircraft, and $20.5 million for "display preparation," including setting up the crew cabin in flight configuration and installing structural shells and skins in place of hazardous systems that will be removed at NASA's expense.
As these expenses are not included within NASA's 2011 budget, the museums — including the Smithsonian — must assume their cost to be eligible to receive an orbiter.
The Smithsonian's 2011 budget request to Congress does not include a substantial increase to the National Air and Space Museum's funding, nor does it include among its planned activities mention of accessioning an orbiter.
The budget documents do however, mention the on-going efforts by the institution to raise private funds to complete "Phase Two" of the Udvar-Hazy, including the move of the Garber Facility to a new wing under construction at the Virginia annex. (A congressional mandate prohibits federal funds from being used for construction.)
Championing for a champion
The Smithsonian already owns a space shuttle orbiter — the prototype Enterprise used for glide and landing tests in the late 1970s. Should the institution obtain the funding, the plan is to replace Enterprise with Discovery on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center.
Why then does the Smithsonian desire Discovery? Other than Enterprise having never flown in space, the National Air and Space Museum specifically favors Discovery over Atlantis and Endeavour because it is the fleet leader.
"We consider it to be the champion of all the orbiters because when the program ends, it will have flown the most missions," said curator Valerie Neal in an August 2010 interview with the radio news show The Takeaway. (collectSPACE requested to speak to Neal for this article but the museum declined).
"It will retire with 39 missions and because it is the oldest of the remaining orbiters, it has the most varied history. It has flown every kind of mission that the shuttle program was designed to fly," said Neal.
Congress has yet to weigh in specifically about Discovery or any other orbiter going to the Smithsonian. In a recently passed NASA authorization act though, Congress did insert language addressing the shuttles' retirement and in doing so, implied that the National Air and Space Museum should be considered for a retired flown orbiter.
"The Smithsonian Institution... shall determine any new location for the Enterprise," the bill states. It was signed into law by President Obama last month.
The astronaut commanding Discovery's final flight, Steven Lindsey has said in media interviews that he expects the orbiter to go to the Smithsonian. Asked by collectSPACE about the possibility of Discovery not going there, Lindsey focused his reply on what he hoped exhibiting the orbiter would achieve, regardless of where it was retired.
"In terms of it being displayed, I have several criteria and I don't think you can meet them all at the same time," he said.
"I would like it to be displayed in a place where the most people can see it, where it somewhere mainstream where everyone can go see and observe it. I would personally like to see all these orbiters displayed in way that people can instead of just walking up to an orbiter with a rope around it, they can somehow — and I don't know exactly how one could do this — experience what it was like for the workers to service it, what it was like for the payload folks to get payloads into it, and what it was like for the crew to fly it and operate it."
"I think it also important for the space shuttles to be — personally, kind of nostalgic — to have it's home close to where all of us worked on it," Lindsey added.
"So I do not think we can meet all of those criteria but without specifying a place, those are what I would like to see."