After fierce bidding, four cities have won the right to host NASA’s retiring space shuttles. Los Angeles, Washington, Florida’s Kennedy Space Center and New York City are the proud new owners of these giant “space trucks,” as they have been dubbed by their creators. Each has ambitious plans to exploit the educational and tourism value of what NASA chief administrator Charles Bolden calls “national treasures.”
The race to snag one of the four shuttles left disappointed suitors in its wake, notably Houston and Ohio. “I wish there were more of these to go around,” says Jeffrey Rudolph, president of the California Science Center, which will soon be Endeavour’s final berth.
But the tab for handling these 75-ton behemoths is pretty eye-popping – some $29 million just to transport the Endeavor to Los Angeles, atop a jet plane, and hundreds of millions more to create a special exhibit space that won’t be complete for another five years.
And in the end, it's unlikely anyone will actually get to clamber up into the cockpit for a Captain Kirk moment, says Mr. Rudolph. The big, shiny space machine will probably be for eyes only. Which raises the question, is it worth it?
What is the value of such an expensive, hands-off artifact?
First off, there’s the bragging rights. The shuttles were constructed in California, after all. “It’s a tremendous educational opportunity to celebrate California’s leadership in science, technology and engineering,” says Rudolph.
His bigger goal, he adds, is to “motivate and inspire millions of young people to dream of the possibilities, and attract and engage the next generation of scientists and engineers.” The downtown Science Center has put its money where its vision is, hosting a 600-student elementary school on its campus.
Endeavour, with one final mission yet to fly, has already traveled 115.5 million miles and has spent 280 days, 9-1/2 hours in space. Space shuttle Atlantis will follow, in late June, and that will end the space shuttle program.
At that point, these displays will be the only reminders of the shuttle program, notes Edward Devinney, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “If you look at the country’s current position on science and technology and look around, other countries are catching up,” he says, adding that our strength in those fields has eroded in the past decade. “Anything we can do to get youth interested in science and technology and engineering is a great thing.” If you look at the way the world has been going over the past few decades, he adds, “It’s pretty clear the future belongs to the educated and those who know science.”
The shuttles are an important symbol, says Brendan Kownacki, director of Strategic Innovation for Merge Creative Media in Washington, via email. “The space race with the Russians began as a sign of technical savvy and nationalism, and has yielded dozens upon dozens of inventions and technological advancements. I think the shuttles represent innovation and imagination and the idea that America has a bright future beyond what we see or know or can grasp,” he says.
We need to look at the future and make sure our children have an incentive to achieve beyond their present realities and that they have faith in themselves to bring the vision to fruition, says Ron Dilulio, director of astronomy programs at the University of North Texas and a Solar Systems ambassador for NASA. “There is no better way to do this than stand in front of this giant artifact and say we did this, we made this.”
“Giant” is no exaggeration. When wheels-down on the runway – or exhibit space – shuttles stand more than five stories tall (57 feet). They stretch 122 feet long (that’s over 40 yards, football fans), and weigh 151,205 lbs, empty.
Rudolph adds, “Their real value, now that they are grounded, is in what they say about where we have been and where we might go in the future.”
"Films, videos, and models are good second choices," Professor Dilulio adds, "but when a young person can look at an artifact, they are seeing the thing itself, not a representation. It's impossible to get the real feeling of what a shuttle was like unless you actually stand next to one."