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Who wants to buy a used shuttle? Plenty of folks

Condition: 27 years old, 150 million miles traveled, somewhat dinged but well maintained.

Price: $0.

Dealer preparation and destination charges: $28.8 million.

So, does anyone want to buy a used space shuttle?

Yes, it turns out. This old vehicle — the space shuttle Discovery — is an object of fervent desire for Kennedy Space Center and museums around the country, which would love to add it or one of its mates, the Endeavour and the Atlantis, to their collections.

The Discovery is to return from orbit today, concluding its 39th flight and its space-faring career, but it will make at least one more ascent — piggyback on a 747 airplane — to its resting place for public display. NASA will announce the final destinations for the three soon-to-be-retired shuttles on April 12, the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle launch.

The competing institutions have campaigned energetically.

The visitor complex at the Kennedy Space Center has proposed what would probably be the most ambitious display: While most of the museums would have the orbiter sitting on the ground and build a fancy hangar around it, Kennedy would like to suspend it horizontally as if it were in Earth's orbit, with the payload doors open and the robotic arm sticking out. It would be the centerpiece of a $100 million, 64,000-square-foot exhibit that would open in late 2013.

"We want to show it in flight," said William Moore, the chief operating officer of the visitor center, which operates under contract with NASA without government funding, "and so the exhibit is really based around the shuttle working, because it's a working vehicle and has done a lot of great things."

The visitor center at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston hired a marketing firm and set up a website, Houston is the location of NASA's Mission Control, which guides the shuttles during flight. For the Texans, owning a space shuttle would be "the modern-day equivalent of housing Columbus' famed ships — the Nina, the Pinta or the Santa Maria," the website states.

The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan has collected more than 150,000 names on a petition urging that one of the shuttles be placed there. "New York City would make an ideal home for one of these retiring shuttles," the campaign asserts, noting that the spacecraft would be "prominently displayed" on Pier 86.

The Museum of Flight in Seattle has perhaps gone the furthest: This week, it erected the first wall of a new $12 million wing to house the shuttle it may never get. The museum's "shuttle boosters" website argues that Seattle has "the right stuff" because the Boeing 747 was built there and 27 shuttle astronauts have called Washington home. (Officials at the Seattle museum say they have planned for the possibility of not getting a shuttle and would fill the space with other space artifacts.)

No one knows if these efforts, or dueling letters from various members of Congress, are exerting any sway on the top decisionmaker at NASA, Charles F. Bolden Jr., who has said that he alone will decide where the shuttles end up.

NASA says that 21 institutions have submitted proposals.

"We're waiting," said Susan Marenoff, president of the Intrepid Museum. "We're hoping."

Other hopefuls include the California Science Center in Los Angeles and the Museum of the United States Air Force, near Dayton, Ohio.

After Discovery lands, only two shuttle flights remain. The Endeavour is scheduled to launch in April, and the Atlantis in June. Then the three will become museum pieces, with delivery expected next year. Each weighs about 170,000 pounds and is 122 feet long, with a wingspan of 78 feet.

There is also a fourth orbiter, the Enterprise, which was used for early glide tests but never went to space. The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum has the Enterprise on display.

A couple of years ago, NASA inquired if any museums or other institutions had an interest in acquiring one of the three flying space shuttles. Potential bidders were told that educational programs had to accompany the exhibits and that the shuttles had to reside in an indoor, climate-controlled environment. (NASA does not want to repeat the mistake at the end of the Apollo era, when the remaining Saturn V rockets rusted and decayed outdoors.)

Since then, NASA has been mostly silent.

"We've not been contacted since we submitted," said Richard E. Allen Jr., chief executive of Space Center Houston, the visitor center at Johnson.

After it lands, Discovery will go through a month of routine post-flight rituals, like the removal of payloads. But then workers will start primping it for its new life as a tourist attraction. That work — which accounts for most of the $28.8 million that NASA is charging — will include cleaning or removing parts that have been contaminated by toxic propellants and will likely take nine months to a year.

Moore said he was confident that Kennedy Space Center would be one of the recipients. "You should be sure to call me back on April the 13th about how we feel when we get an orbiter," he said.

However, for all his confidence, Moore admitted that he had no idea what Bolden was thinking. "We read the newspaper a lot," he said. "NASA has been very close-lipped about this. We really don't have any inside scoop at all."

.fast facts

What time is

the homecoming?

Space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to land today at Kennedy Space Center, completing a 13-day mission to outfit the International Space Station. If Discovery lands today, it will have spent a total of 365 days in space and traveled nearly 150 million miles during 39 flights. It launched on its first mission on Aug. 30, 1984.

• Today's landing opportunities are at 11:57 a.m. and 1:34 p.m.

Who wants to buy a used shuttle? Plenty of folks 03/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 8, 2011 7:55pm]
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