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Friday, April 1, 2011

Politics might get in way of bid to get shuttle

By Hayley Kappes
The Daily News

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER — Space Center Houston officials are making a final push to bring a retired shuttle orbiter to Houston, but some say politics might prevent the spacecraft from calling the country’s manned spaceflight center home.

The decision is up to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who April 12 will announce where space shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis go after the program is retired later this year.

Space Shuttle Discovery, which returned March 9 from its final mission, will head to the Smithsonian Institution.

Fred Griffin, chairman of a space tourism subcommittee created by Space Center Houston’s board of directors, said he fears President Barack Obama’s administration will influence Bolden’s decision.

“We’d win hands down based on merit,” Griffin said. “The shuttle was developed, engineered and controlled here, but it boils down to politics. We’re a red state, and some of the other contenders, like Ohio, are swing states.”

Bipartisan members of the Texas delegation on Capitol Hill sent a letter Monday to Bolden that expressed concern about a provision in the Air Force’s fiscal year 2012 budget request for $14 million to prepare and display Atlantis at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

“With the locations for the space shuttle orbiters still yet to be determined, requesting $14 million appears to be either premature or indicate that, despite the assurances from NASA, final decisions have already been made,” the letter stated.

It’s Bolden’s decision, but the White House administration might have influenced NASA’s leader to favor a battleground state over Texas, Griffin said.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 stipulates that shuttle recipients should provide for the display and maintenance of orbiters at locations with the best potential value to the public.

Shuttle display locations should advance educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and should have a historical relationship with flight operations or have provided significant contributions to human space flight, according to the act.

Adding To Johnson’s Collection

Johnson Space Center has an extensive spaceflight artifact collection, featuring a Saturn V rocket and hardware from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules and the Skylab trainer.

The shuttle, however, is NASA’s most important program besides the International Space Station, Griffin said.

“Johnson Space Center has played a pivotal role throughout NASA’s entire manned space flight program,” Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said in a statement. “Placing an orbiter in Houston would be a fitting tribute to the region’s hard work and dedicated space community.”

Johnson is one of 21 institutions campaigning for a shuttle.

Each candidate submitted a proposal to prove the institution could properly house an orbiter and had the financial ability and resources needed to undertake the project.

Space center officials have proposed a 53,000-square-foot addition to house a shuttle and related exhibit that would focus on the human side of shuttle operations, including astronaut activities and what was accomplished on the orbiter.

The space center’s addition, preparation and transportation of the shuttle to Houston would cost about $50 million.

The exhibit would increase Space Center Houston’s current $45 million annual economic impact, provide $29 million in business value and create more than 750 jobs in the area, said Robert F. Hodgin, University of Houston-Clear Lake associate professor of economics.

A Final Push

With less than two weeks left before Bolden’s decision is announced, locals are making a final push to bring a shuttle to Houston.

Richard Allen, president and CEO of Space Center Houston, and Clear Lake family members of astronauts who died during the Challenger and Columbia disasters traveled to Washington this week to lobby for bringing an orbiter to the center.

Chris Ferguson, commander of the final shuttle mission scheduled to launch June 28, said he would be disappointed

if Houston didn’t receive a shuttle.

It’s important, however, to spread the orbiters geographically, he said.

“I’d like to think that one would come here to Houston,” Ferguson said. “These are the folks who have toiled for decades to make human spaceflight possible. To me, this is the center of the human spaceflight universe, but we do understand it’s a large country. A lot of people have never seen something that’s actually been to space and returned.”

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Discovery Space Shuttle stop in Amarillo, TX 9/20/2009

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