As the Space Shuttle program draws to a close, more and more the question will be asked “what should we do with the Orbiters?” If previous human spaceflight artifacts are any guide, the Orbiters will likely be donated to museums. For instance, John Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule and the Apollo 11 command module Columbia are both displayed prominently at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. It is anticipated that the Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour will likewise be put on display for average citizens to enjoy. The question of which museums the vehicles will be donated to remains an open question and is likely to for some time. A number of factors, including financial ones, will determine where the Orbiters are retired to.
Those organizations that wish to exhibit one of the Orbiters will face several challenges. One of those challenges will be allocating enough room for the vehicle. With a wing span of 78 feet and a length of 122 feet, the Orbiter will require a significant amount of display space. Providing a suitable area for displaying an Orbiter will require a significant investment of money, time, and labor. Once a site has been chosen to display the Orbiter, the decision of whether or not to enclose the vehicle will be raised. In order to preserve the historic integrity of the vehicle it should be enclosed. Although it may be cheaper to simply park the vehicle outside, if left exposed to the elements the Orbiter will slowly begin to deteriorate and thus require constant upkeep and maintenance. A simple, though potentially expensive, solution is to partially or completely enclose the Orbiter as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Alabama have done with their Saturn V rocket exhibits.
Another challenge will be transportation. While the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules could be transported by a variety of methods, the ideal way to transport the Orbiter is the way it has always been transported: strapped to the top of a Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. While this method of transportation will likely be a significant expense, it is the only respectful way to transport the Orbiter. While transportation costs might be reduced if the Orbiter is disassembled into large section and transported over land or water, this method would compromise the historic integrity of the vehicle. For instance, when a historic house is disassembled, moved to a new site, and then reassembled it loses a great deal of qualities that made it historic: location, craftsmanship, materials, etc. The Orbiters will suffer a similar loss of historic integrity if they are disassembled in a significant way.
Aside from the Orbiters themselves, there is also the question of what to do with the infrastructure used to support the Space Shuttles. Equipment such as the Rotating Service Structure used to service the Space Shuttle and it’s payloads at launch pads 39A and 39B, the Mate/De-mate Device used to load the Orbiter onto and off of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, or the 76 wheel, 12 cylinder Orbiter Transporter which carries the vehicle when it is on the ground are all examples of unique infrastructure that are worthy of preservation. Even equipment like the 65 foot long gaseous oxygen vent hood arm is worthy of preservation because of its unique role in the Space Shuttle program. Located on both launch towers, the vent hood is used to move gaseous oxygen vapors away from the Space Shuttle.
As NASA transitions from the Space Shuttle to Project Constellation, there may be a temptation to regard the Space Shuttle’s support equipment as so much junk. One should look no further than the recently demolished Launch Umbilical Tower. The Apollo-era structure, used to service the massive Saturn rockets in the 1960s and 1970s, sat dormant at a Kennedy Space Center storage area for many years before being demolished in 2004. The tower, or at least large sections, could have been donated to a museum such as the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Alabama which has a full scale vertical replica of a Saturn V rocket. Already elements of High Bay 3 in the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center are being removed and demolished to make way for the Ares booster and Project Constellation. Hopefully this will not be a harbinger of things to come. Once destroyed, these artifacts and the craftsmanship used to construct them will be lost forever.
The question of what to do with the Orbiters and their support infrastructure is not likely to be answered soon. In fact, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle may be flying before permanent homes are found for the Orbiters. Whatever the ultimate fate of the Orbiters and their associated equipment, this much is certain: they are deserving of preservation because of their unique design and role in human spaceflight.