This nation has always had a fascination with exploring the mysteries of space. The space shuttle program, a tribute to American engineering and the courage to pursue the next frontier, realized many of those aspirations. Now the remaining shuttles, which began their lives as advanced technological marvels, are soon to be relegated to museum pieces. Although these venerable spacecraft may be grounded, they can still be a potent economic force, especially for Florida's Space Coast tourism industry.
On Tuesday, which marks the 30th anniversary of Columbia's first launch, NASA will announce the final resting places of three remaining, soon-to-be retired shuttles: Atlantis, Endeavour and Enterprise. A fourth shuttle, Discovery, already has been claimed by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington. Twenty-one museum and science centers around the country — including Florida's Kennedy Space Center, the Johnson Space Center in Texas and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York, as well as museums in Seattle, Los Angeles and Dayton, Ohio — are competing to win one of the shuttles. Florida deserves one of them.
It will not be an easy decision for NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. Still, there is a strong case that the Kennedy Space Center and the Johnson Space Center, from which the shuttle flights are controlled, should be clear front-runners to each receive one of the retired vehicles. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in particular looms as the first among equals of all the locations vying for a retired shuttle. All 135 shuttle launches, including the program's remaining final two missions this year, will have ascended into the heavens from there. More than half have returned to Florida from their missions.
In addition to Kennedy's proud history, as NASA downsizes its role in space exploration, Florida's Space Coast economy faces the loss of thousands of jobs, creating a damaging ripple effect on the region's economic health. Already the Kennedy Space Center attracts 1.5 million visitors every year. Experiencing a shuttle orbiter up close and personal would enhance the center's educational allure and boost the region's economic prospects.
While the other competitors around the country vie for a retired shuttle because of its considerable tourist attraction value, the Kennedy Space Center is unique in its bid to receive one of these grand historical spacecraft —- and NASA owes the region something for its decadeslong commitment and the economic pain inflicted by the end of the shuttle program.
This would be welcoming home an old friend after a very long trip.