When space shuttle Discovery touched down in December 2006 after spending 13 days in space traveling 5.3 million miles, it came to rest on four main landing gear and two nose gear tires. Although not much larger than a truck tire, just one of Discovery's main gear tires could carry three times the load of a Boeing 747 tire or the entire starting line-up of a NASCAR race 40 race cars all hitting the pavement at 250 miles per hour.
The rear tires that brought the STS-116 crew to their safe end of mission, like all orbiter main gear tires, were rated for only one use and were replaced before Discovery flew again nearly a year later. The orbiter's nose gear met the same fate after only their second landing.
Discovery's spent tires and those of 50 other past flights dating as far back as 1986 were moved to NASA surplus yards and storage centers. The Kennedy Space Center in Florida began the process to auction more than 60 of the retired tires as scrap in February 2005 before the agency reconsidered and pulled the tires from the sale. Instead, NASA said, they would be set aside for then-unspecified "outreach and educational activities."
Three years later, NASA announced last week their flown tires' fate: they would be rolled out as the pilot for a new artifact loan program targeted at museums, planetariums, and other organizations.
Prior to the new Artifact Loan Opportunities Program, the space agency made its spent space-flown items available to the Smithsonian and to other museums. Educational institutions could borrow artifacts for short term display or in-classroom use but long-term loans were primarily only available to credentialed museums that could satisfy the preservation requirements set by NASA.
Given the ample supply of shuttle tires and the desire to reach new audiences, NASA has invited proposals for the long-term loan of the tires by organizations traditionally excluded from such programs, such as civic groups and schools. To facilitate the process, the agency has waived some of their requirements for the care of flown artifacts, permitting outdoor display as well as the option to drill or cut, as well as paint the tires, though whether intact or in pieces, all the material will remain the property of NASA.
Announcing the program, NASA suggested example uses of the tires, including as art, sculpture, furniture, building structures, or exhibits.
To qualify for a three-year renewable loan, organizations need to submit a proposal by June 11 as well as provide proof of insurance in case of loss for the retail value set by NASA of $250 per tire. Due to U.S. State Department regulations, the tires may not leave the country.
The organization must also provide a guarantee to cover the shipping costs associated with the transportation of the tires, which average a weight of 500 pounds and are approximately 3.5 feet in diameter, from either Florida or Washington, DC.
In addition to the STS-116 tires, NASA also has listed as available tires from the 2005 "Return To Flight" mission of STS-114; the 1998 STS-88 flight, which gave birth to the International Space Station; STS-95, that featured former U.S. Senator John Glenn's return to space after 36 years; and STS-61C, that landed 10 days before the loss during launch of space shuttle Challenger in 1986, among many other tires from other missions.
According to the program's website, loans will be awarded on the basis of the creative and innovative merit of the proposal, past experience, technical knowledge, outreach potential, educational potential, both fiscal and schedule soundness, alignment with NASA's educational goals and the attraction of "nontraditional" audiences.
NASA estimates the announcement of the granted loans will be made on or around July 18, 2008.
Though NASA has yet to announce additional artifacts it may make available through the program, the agency is preparing for the 2010 scheduled retirement of the space shuttle fleet, which accounts for hundreds of thousands of items beyond the three remaining vehicles themselves.
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