15 April 2011

Going Above NASA's Head

NASA will be decommissioning the Space Shuttle fleet after 30 years of service later this year.  There were competitive bids from 21 different organizations to house the retired Space Shuttles.  After three years of deliberation, NASA Chief Charles Bolton announced that the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Space Center, Los Angeles and New York City would receive Space Shuttles. Perhaps Bolton spent more time helping Muslims feel better about their contributions to math and science than considering the Space Shuttle relocations.

The Kennedy Space Center in Florida was a natural choice, as it has been the home of the American Manned Space program since its inception in the early 1960s.  The Kennedy Space Center is planning a $100 million display where the Atlantis will be suspended in mid-air behind a multi storied digital projection of the Earth.

Washington, DC is the Nation’s Capitol and was the driver and financer of the Manned Space Program so it was fitting that it received a retired Space Shuttle.  Besides, the Smithsonian Institution’s network of museums have been likened to America’s attic so it is an apt curator for this cosmic piece of Americana.  The National Air & Space Museum Udvar-Hazy complex near Dulles Washington International Airport will house the Discovery in the James McDonnell Space Hanger.

I can appreciate arguments for some geographic distribution of these treasured pieces of space lore. Thus the award of the Endeavour to the California Science Center in Los Angeles seems alright.  The California Science Center already houses Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. The Space Shuttles were built by Rockwell in nearby Palmdale, California. And Space Shuttles often landed at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California.

But the latter award is truly puzzling.  New York City is getting a hand me down prototype Shuttle Enterprise from the Smithsonian’s collection.  The only rationales that come to mind with this decision are political and economic.  Supporters of awarding the Enterprise to the Intrepid Space-Air-Sea Museum on Pier 86 in New York City note that they are lucky to land a space shuttle, even if it is only an engineless prototype.

The Enterprise is too large to be displayed on the Intrepid Aircraft Carrier, so the shuttle will require a new glass-enclosed hanger to be built where the Concorde is currently stowed. The Intrepid Museum’s Executive Director Susan Marenoff, expects 300,000 additional visitors to generate $106 Million in economic benefits to a politically solidly blue New York.

As for Mission Control deep in Texas, the response was “Houston, we have a problem”.  The Johnson Space Center in Houston, which has managed America’s manned space flights won a booby prize of the flight deck’s pilot and commander seats.  The Houston Chronicle’s memorable headline was “One Giant Snub For Houston”.

As the news descended to Earth, Texas lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were outraged.  As Rep. John Culberson (R-TX 7th), this is like “Detroit without a Model T, Florence without Leonardo Da Vinci”.  Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) vented that “pure political favors trumped common sense and fairness” when awarding the shuttles to New York City and Los Angeles.  Even Obama Administration stalwart Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX 18th) did not have Mars on her mind when she Tweeted her disappointment that the home of human space flight in Houston was not awarded a space shuttle.

Although there is a chance that LA or NYC might not raise the initial $28.8 Million to transport the shuttles to there new homes and the allocation process would be open again, some Congressman are not leaving it to chance.  Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT 3rd), the Chairman of the House subcommitte on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations, has filed a bill to ensure that Houston receives a decommissioned Space Shuttle.   Chaffetz claims to want to rely on history and logic rather than political guidance when making these monumental decisions.  His bill certainly will receive strong support from the Texas delegation and would be a worthy earmark in future federal budgets.

While there are only so many Space Shuttles to go around, it seems unjust to snub the Houston, the heart of manned space flights.  This is the danger of a feeding more money and power to a federal government, which tends to usurp the power of the people as bestowed in the legislature in favor of partisans dressed up as bureaucrats bestowing political favors.   As P.J. O’Rourke caustically put it in Parliament of Whores: “Giving more money and power to the Federal Government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenaged boys.”


Anthony said...

NYC gets a space shuttle so that people will actually be able to see it.

Houston did get snubbed, but I think you should have been moaning towards Ohio instead of the largest US city.

But the argument that Houston deserves a space shuttle more then anyone, which Pete Olson made is flat out pathetic. What about FL? You know... The place where they launched?

I assure you being from upstate NY that I would go to NYC to see the prototype Enterprise before I went to Ohio to see a "real" shuttle. Maybe that's just my love for all things bearing the name "Enterprise" though.

El Barroco said...

I question whether a Space Shuttle will be an NYC Treasure in a city had has so many other attractions. Why doesn't the South get any love. Might it be how their electorate votes?