Museum of Flight in Tukwila launching its own space shuttle mission: To bring one here

Discovery. Endeavor. Enterprise. These are names that have defined the modern-day U.S. space program. Technology today may be measured on the nano scale, and a manned mission Mars may soon be in reach, given our vast technological advances. But amid all that – and operating on machinery that predates even the cell phone in your pocket – these three space craft, indelible fixtures of the U.S. Space Shuttle program, have brought their crews home safe.

Bonnie Dunbar

Discovery. Endeavor. Enterprise.

These are names that have defined the modern-day U.S. space program.

Technology today may be measured on the nano scale, and a manned mission Mars may soon be in reach, given our vast technological advances.

But amid all that – and operating on machinery that predates even the cell phone in your pocket – these three space craft, indelible fixtures of the U.S. Space Shuttle program, have brought their crews home safe.

In doing so, they have made the outer reaches of space that much more tangible to the rest of us.

Bonnie Dunbar knows these things.

She has felt the rumble of massive, hydrogen-fueled engines in liftoff, sensed the press of gravity while slipping the bonds of earth.

She has seen that earth, glowing like a jewel in the vastness of space.

For Dunbar, a veteran of five shuttle missions and former director of the Museum of Flight in Tukwila, the U.S. shuttle program isn’t just an entry in a history book. It is the nuts-and-bolts legacy of what makes us human: our desire to learn; to understand, essentially, why we are stardust, too.

“We are all products of exploration. The universe has so much to teach us about our own planet,” Dunbar said, seated in the board room of the museum last month, and reflecting on what the shuttle program – and space exploration – means to people here.

With NASA poised to conclude its shuttle program this year, Dunbar is working to convince the space organization to retire one of those three shuttles to the Museum of Flight.

For Dunbar, the Puget Sound region is rich with reasons for people to be interested in the shuttle.

“People don’t realize the link to the Northwest,” she said. “But when the shuttle was built, it had 100 different companies (involved in its manufacture.) Some of those companies are here.”

That includes the Boeing Co., which built the 747 jetliner that carried one of the first shuttle orbiters on its back during early flight tests, and of which North American Rockwell – the company that built the first shuttle – is now a subsidiary.

What’s more, Washington has been home to 27 shuttle astronauts, in addition to being an epicenter of computer development, and a new generation of young people steeped in the traditions of aviation and technology.

“For me, it’s not just about being a crew member on five shuttle missions,” Dunbar said. “It’s the history and culture of this region. Capturing the history already here – for me, that’s important.”

In the coming months, the Museum of Flight will have the rarest of opportunities to capture some of that history, by making a bid for one of those craft.

Dunbar said reading about the shuttle is one thing – actually coming face to face with one – that is the stuff of inspiration.

“It gives them a point of discussion,” Dunbar said of the physical presence of the space craft and the effect that viewing experience has on people. “Computers are great tools, but they don’t bring them into the hands-on, physical world.”

The Museum of Flight would be a perfect fit for one of those spacecraft, Dunbar said.

“I knew this museum would take the time to tell that history,” she said.

So in the waning hours of the shuttle program, the Museum of Flight has launched a massive effort to bring a shuttle home. The largest part of that effort is creation of a $12 million gallery in which to house the shuttle.

“I refer to it as a the world’s largest display case,” said Dan Hagedorn, chief curator of the museum, of the building the museum broke ground on last year at its Boeing Field facilities. “It will basically fit the shuttle with room to spare.”

Seeing the craft is an eye-opening experience, Hagedorn added.

“When you see the thing in the flesh, it is in fact, awe-inspiring,” he said, of the spacecraft that stands about 57 feet high and has a wingspan of 78 feet.

The 15,500-square-foot gallery also will house other museum space artifacts, as well as what Dunbar described as a “full fuselage trainer.”

It’s a full-size mockup of the shuttle interior that astronauts – including Dunbar – have trained in for their missions. The Museum of Flight has already been awarded that artifact.

Hagedorn, who previously worked for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., said the Museum of Flight had a number of facts in its favor, in the nation-wide competition to receive a space shuttle.

“For the minimum conditions a museum has to meet, one of them, we believe, is you have to be an accredited institution,” he said. “We are a Smithsonian affiliate – one of the very few.

“That basically means we subscribe to the exact same specifications as the Smithsonian, and they are the best in the world. This (the Museum of Flight) is a museum that’s going to be here 200 years from now.”

Hagedorn added that museum-collections staff at the Tukwila-based museum are trained at the graduate level, ensuring expert handling of artifacts.

“We know how to take care of objects, no matter how large or how small they are,” he said.

There are also the logistics of just getting the shuttle to whatever museums are selected. Hagedorn said there’s a weeding-out process that happens right off the bat.

“You have to have at least a 10,000-foot runway,” he said. (A 10,200-foot runway is located adjacent to the Museum of Flight.)

The reason for that is the delivery of the space craft – it comes by air delivery, bolted onto the back of a Boeing 747.

“There’s no other way you can get it in your venue,” Hagedorn said, noting the Museum of Flight’s facilities are equipped to handle that special delivery.

“You can’t take it apart,” he said of the shuttle. “And you need an airfield that will take the 747 with a shuttle on its spine, and you have to be able to take it off the shuttle fairly easily.”

Even so, there are approximately 23 museums across the nation in the running for the spacecraft.

In terms of a time frame for when a final decision will be forthcoming from NASA, Hagedorn said they didn’t have a deadline, but he was optimistic that an announcement will happen soon.

“My guess is the decision’s already been made,” he said, or that NASA is close to the end of its decision-making process.

“I think the moment of truth is approaching,” Hagedorn added, noting that growing public interest in the project and the retiring shuttles is going to prompt NASA (and the White House, which will most likely have to sign off on the selections) to make its decision known in the next few months.

Hagedorn said the museum was grateful for the amount of support it’s seen from the state’s elected officials, including the governor’s office, senators and U.S. representatives.

But it will be a relief to get the final word.

“We’ve been on tenterhooks for the last three years,” he said. “We think we’ve got all the qualifications I think we’ve got everything. I don’t know what more we can do.”

Show your support

The Museum of Flight is making a bid to receive one of three retiring space shuttles from NASA, which could help bring in tourism to the area, as well as providing young people in the region with a critical facet of U.S. space program history. Public support for bringing a shuttle here is a part of that decision-making process. Log on to the museum’s Web site at www.museumofflight.org. On the Web site, you’ll have the opportunity to sign a petition of support, as well as to learn more about how the museum would store the craft.

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