Obama Dismisses Claim That Politics Denied Houston a Space Shuttle

Crews move the primary payload for space shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 mission into the Payload Changeout Room on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Crews move the primary payload for space shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 mission into the Payload Changeout Room on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Image credit: NASA)

President Barack Obama said the White House played no part in choosing the museums where NASA's retired space shuttles will be displayed, and that the city of Houston was not overlooked for political reasons, according to news reports.

In an interview with a local Texas TV reporter, Obama maintained that the retirement of NASA's three space shuttles and a test orbiter to museums around the country was not politically charged.

"The White House has nothing to do with it," Obama told Brad Watson, a reporter with Belo TV, which is part of a conglomerate that owns several TV stations in Texas. The video was posted online on the Yahoo news blog, The Ticket.

Obama further emphasized that politics did not influence the decision-making process after Watson implied that the orbiters had been awarded to states that are critical for his re-election.

"I just said that was wrong," Obama insisted. "I just said that wasn't true."

Four museums, out of a competitive field that started with 29 hopeful sites across the country, were chosen to exhibit NASA's three working orbiters and the prototype shuttle Enterprise, which is currently on display at the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. [NASA's Space Shuttle Program in Pictures: A Tribute]

Following their retirement, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour will be moved to their future homes at, respectively, the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Enterprise, which was used in early glide tests but never flew in space, was awarded to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, which is housed in the USS Intrepid World War II aircraft carrier at Pier 86 on the west side of Manhattan.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced the winning museums on April 12, during an employee event held at the Kennedy Space Center to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle program. The decision was made after months of internal review. [The Most Memorable Space Shuttle Missions]

Controversy quickly followed, particularly among those who were disappointed that Houston's Johnson Space Center was not among the finalists. The Johnson Space Center is the nerve center of space shuttle mission control and is where NASA's astronaut corps lives and works.

On April 14, Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a bill called the "Space Shuttle Retirement Act," which would establish sites in Texas, Florida, California and Virginia (the Smithsonian) as museum destinations for the retired space shuttles.

“Instead of relying on political guidance systems, these decisions must be steered by history and logic," Chaffetz said in a statement. "My legislation would designate the retirement home of the three space shuttles based on the location and history of the shuttles’ launches, landings, and mission support, the fourth based on the Smithsonian’s role in preserving American artifacts.”

Former space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale responded to the outcry in a blog post, saying Houston did not get a retired orbiter because the city does not deserve one. The post, which originally appeared on Hale's personal blog, was also reprinted on Space News.

"Not that we don’t have a long history with the shuttle; it was largely designed here; the program was managed from here from the beginning to the end, every single mission was planned here, the astronauts who flew the shuttle are based here, trained here, live here. Mission control is here," Hale wrote. "But Houston is blasé about the shuttles. Houston and Texas have come to regard NASA and JSC as entitlements."

Obama and his family will attend NASA's planned launch of the space shuttle Endeavour on April 29, according to a White House official.

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Denise Chow
NBC News science writer

Denise Chow is a former Space.com staff writer who then worked as assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. She spent two years with Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions, before joining the Live Science team in 2013. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University. At NBC News, Denise covers general science and climate change.