And, as if on cue, the complaints about New York getting a space shuttle while Houston, home of NASA operations and training, did not, and all the concomitant politically-oriented accusations and conspiracy theories, rose like a chorus.
I live in New York so I'm obviously delighted to have Enterprise here, even though I've already seen her, twice, at the Smithsonian, where she was on display from 2004 until April of this year, when Discovery, the first of the flight vehicles to be retired, took her place in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA. So maybe I am a little biased here. And I agree that it's a shame Houston will not be getting a genuine space shuttle orbiter for posterity. I just think this "controversy," if it really is one, is drastically overblown.
Enterprise was, perhaps appropriately, characterized as something of a "consolation prize" when, on April 12 of 2011, the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch, she was somewhat surprisingly awarded to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan. After all, the real prizes in the space shuttle sweepstakes were the three flight vehicles, the ones that actually flew in space, the ones with real rocket engines and real thermal shield tiles and payload bay doors that actually open. The ones that have been in orbit, that have docked with the International Space Station (which they helped build), that launched, repaired and upgraded the Hubble Space Telescope, that survived the heat of re-entry and glided to a landing more than 20 times each.
Of course, there were supposed to be four flight vehicles. Columbia (designated OV-102) was the first. Enterprise (OV-101), the prototype for Columbia that had been built as an atmospheric and ground test vehicle, was supposed to be the second, but NASA found that cost and logistical considerations made it more sensible to build out an existing structural test article, a bare airframe designated STA-099, than to dismantle and upgrade Enterprise, hence the second operational space shuttle became Challenger (OV-099) instead. Discovery (OV-103) and Atlantis (OV-104) followed, and by 1985 the fleet was complete. Meanwhile, Enterprise became an earthbound stand-in for her space-worthy sisters, fit-checking hardware on the ground, touring the country and the world for public display, and serving as an occasional "parts hulk" for the flight vehicles, until NASA had no further use for her and passed her on to the Smithsonian in 1985.
The following year, tragedy struck when Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds into its 10th (the shuttle program's 25th) flight, killing all seven astronauts on board. Although consideration was given to un-retiring and upgrading Enterprise, NASA decided once again that it would be cheaper, easier and faster to construct a brand new orbiter, later named Endeavour (OV-105), from existing structural components left over from the construction of Discovery and Atlantis. Enterprise therefore remained mothballed in the Smithsonian's storage hangar at Dulles International Airport for nearly two decades, as the Institution had no place to display her (the craft is much too large to display in the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, let alone get it there through the streets of Washington, DC).
Tragedy struck again in 2003 when Columbia was lost during re-entry, and another seven astronauts lost their lives. Enterprise, still Columbia's nearest twin structurally, was brought out of mothballs to serve as a test bed for NASA's investigation into the cause of the accident. But there would be no replacement for Columbia. The space shuttle's days were numbered.
Later that year, the Udvar-Hazy Center was completed, finally giving the Smithsonian a place to display some of the larger pieces in its air and space collection, including Enterprise. The old prototype space shuttle was rolled into the empty hangar and restored in situ, finally going on public display when the McDonnell Space Hangar opened in 2004.
It's very likely that the Udvar-Hazy Center was designed and built with the knowledge and understanding that Enterprise was just a placeholder for one of the flight vehicles, such that one would be displayed there once the shuttle program inevitably ended. Although the museum staff were always coy about it, it was just too obvious; for one thing, the Smithsonian Institution has a right of first refusal on all NASA space-flown hardware. Apart from being constructed specifically to accommodate Enterprise, and being the only indoor museum facility in the country large enough to admit, let alone display, anything as large as a space shuttle, the Center is located on the grounds of Dulles International Airport, meaning an orbiter could be flown directly there on the 747-SCA and be easily and conveniently transferred from the jumbo jet to the museum without having to traverse any public streets (let alone take down any trees, streetlights, road signs, etc. in the process).
So, the Smithsonian was a foregone conclusion to receive one of the flight vehicles. It had the museum facility already in place, the transfer would be relatively easy, and it is, after all, the Smithsonian. Enterprise would obviously be displaced and go elsewhere. But the loss of Columbia in 2003 left only two more flight vehicles, one of which was certain to remain at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the shuttle fleet essentially lived for the entirety of its operational life, and where the vehicles themselves were being decommissioned -- thus saving the cost and logistics of a 747-SCA ferry flight and overland transport. As with the Smithsonian, even though nothing was ever official and NASA maintained that the competition would be open, there was probably no realistic chance that the KSC would not get an orbiter for display.
The Smithsonian got Discovery. KSC would keep Atlantis. The rest of the nation's museums that submitted bids would thus be competing for one flight vehicle, Endeavour, and the prototype Enterprise.
I remember thinking many, many years ago that it might be cool to bring Enterprise to the Intrepid once its place was taken by a "real" space shuttle at the Smithsonian. I imagined it being displayed on the pier, where the Concorde is now, as I didn't think the aircraft carrier's flight deck was either large or sturdy enough to hold a space shuttle, let alone that it could be displayed indoors on the carrier itself. Nonetheless I was surprised when the Intrepid put in a bid. I figured the remaining vehicles would probably go to Houston and to southern California, the latter being where the shuttles were built and where a number of shuttle missions landed, including the Approach and Landing Tests conducted with Enterprise in 1977. Yet to my surprise and delight, New York got the "consolation prize." Endeavour would go to Los Angeles, and Enterprise was coming to the Big Apple.
Houston, of course, is the home of NASA; it's where Mission Control is located, it's where the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts lived and trained, it was the first word spoken from the surface of the moon. Houston is synonymous with NASA and with the American space program. Its major league baseball team is called the Astros. Space Center Houston is a fantastic museum and tour facility. I've been there. There's no question that Houston would have been an appropriate place for a retired space shuttle orbiter to go on public display.
I'm not going to waste time on the absurd politically-oriented arguments and accusations that have been flying for the past 15 months about why Houston and Texas were snubbed in favor of New York by a federal government agency during a Democratic presidency. Anyone who wants to believe such things will do so no matter what I say.
NASA and its chief administrator, ex-astronaut Charles Bolden, made no secret of their desire to put the space shuttles on display where they would be seen by the most people. Our two largest population and tourism centers are New York and L.A. Since, as mentioned above, for all practical purposes one had to go to the Smithsonian and one had to stay in Florida, if one went to Houston then only one of America's two largest cities could get one. That's not to say that the other museums in other states didn't have a realistic chance of landing an orbiter, but New York and L.A. had the best chance of meeting this important criterion. L.A. made sense because of its proximity to Palmdale (where the shuttles were built) and to Edwards AFB. So NASA may have been faced with a choice of placing the final orbiter either in the city synonymous with the space program, or in the nation's largest metropolitan area.
I have no idea what the deliberations inside NASA were like. I'm sure that if the fleet had retired intact, with four flight vehicles plus Enterprise, then Houston would have gotten one. I'm sure it was a difficult choice. In the end, it seems the volume of foot traffic that New York could offer was too much to pass up, only slightly more important than the "connection" of the shuttle program to Houston. Quite simply, more people will see the shuttle at the Intrepid than would see it at Space Center Houston. The Intrepid already outdraws Space Center Houston, albeit not by much (roughly 900,000 to 750,000 visitors per year), and the Enterprise is expected to increase the Intrepid's attendance by a third.
That, I think, is the point I'm ultimately getting at. The Enterprise represents a major acquisition and a huge upgrade for the Intrepid Museum, which until today had very little authentic space hardware on display (indeed, the tiny Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island has more). With the addition of the Space Shuttle Pavilion, the facility can finally live up to its name as a world-class Sea, Air and Space Museum. Where else can you explore an aircraft carrier, a submarine, a Concorde, and a space shuttle, not to mention dozens of military aircraft, all in the same place?
Space Center Houston is already a world-class space museum. Far from being "ignored" or "forgotten," as some of the complainers would have us believe, Space Center Houston already has some exceptional pieces of authentic space hardware, including Mercury Faith 7, Gemini V and Apollo 17 spacecraft, trainers/mockups of Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz, LEM and lunar rover, as well as two full-size shuttle mockups, and perhaps the single most awesome piece of space hardware ever built, a Saturn V rocket. The facility also offers tram tours of NASA facilities.
Enterprise would have been a fine addition to Space Center Houston, but it would not have been as significant an addition to that collection as it is to the Intrepid's. With or without Enterprise, Space Center Houston is and will remain a premier destination for space enthusiasts. What NASA has done is create, or attempt to create, two new ones, one in New York and one in Los Angeles.
Yes, the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Space Center are also extant premier space-geek destinations, which at first glance implies a double standard here, but the aforementioned logistical issues factor into those locations as well. I'm not suggesting this is simple or easy or the end of the discussion. My only point is that to hear and read some of the complaints, one would think that a space enthusiast visiting Houston would have nothing to see, no place to go, no way to appreciate the city's NASA legacy, and that Houston would have nothing to offer, because no authentic space shuttle orbiter will be exhibited there, or because the orbiters will be displayed in other cities. That simply isn't so.
The disappointment over Houston not getting a space shuttle is real, and is eminently understandable. The resentment of New York getting one, rather less so. One might have hoped that the sight of Enterprise flying over the Empire State Building, the inspiring images of a space shuttle passing the Statue of Liberty and the Freedom Tower, would have tempered some of those ill feelings. Sadly, they haven't.
I look forward to seeing Enterprise at the Intrepid soon. And I look forward to my next visit to Space Center Houston, whenever that may be.