Hoping for Space Shuttle, Seattle Museum Begins New Exhibit

Seattle'sMuseum of Flight has broken ground on a new space exhibit that will highlighthuman spaceflight and will be large enough to fit one of NASA's retiring spaceshuttles ? even though the museum hasn?t officially secured one yet.

Thehuge 15,500-square-foot gallery has actually been planned for awhile, but havingsuch a facility is also a precondition for museums hoping to be awarded one ofNASA's three space shuttles when they are retired in 2011, or a test vehicle.

NASA'sspaceshuttle fleet began flying in 1981 and will be retired after 30 years ofservice to make way for the agency's new plan of sending astronauts to visit anasteroid by 2025, and then outward toward Mars.

Atlantisflew its final scheduled flight in May, with Discovery's last mission set forNov. 1 and the final flight of Endeavour planned for Feb. 26. [Photos:Last Launch of Atlantis]

NASAhas yet to make a decision about where to send the retiring space shuttles Atlantis and Endeavour, and the testshuttle Enterprise. The oldest of the space agency's shuttles, Discovery,has already been promised to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum inWashington, D.C.

Spaceshuttle dreams

Butthat hasn't stopped Seattle's Museum of Flight, which plans to spend $12million building the new space exhibit.

Thestate-of-the-art "Human Space Flight Gallery" will be located on thewest side of Marginal Way, across the street from the main museum campus. TheWashington State legislature approved $3 million in capital support to buildthe new gallery, with the remaining funds coming from private foundations andindividual donations.

Onhand for the June 29 ground-breaking were retired astronaut and Museum ofFlight CEO Bonnie Dunbar, interim president and former President of Microsoft,Michael Hallman and Washington State Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen.

Owensaid that the new space gallery will play an important role as an educationallandmark for science and engineering, in addition to stimulating tourism in Washington.

Shuttleretirement home

Aclimate-controlled building for the spaceshuttle is among the requirements that NASA established for museums thatwill be chosen to host one of the orbiters. Seattle's Museum of Flight is hopingto be a strong contender. ?

"Theshuttle is among the rarest of spaceartifacts," said Michael Hallman,Interim Museum President, in a statement. "The possibility of securing oneis very exciting, and would be a tremendous opportunity for the state ofWashington in terms of the economy, tourism and the educational impact thiscould have on our community."

"Webelieve our institution has the finest education, curatorial, and exhibitsstaff to be found anywhere and we believe we're uniquely qualified to be anoutstanding caretaker for this incredible piece of American history," headded.

Dunbaralso stressed the space shuttle's ability to promote and inspire futurescientists and engineers.

"Educationwill be central to the exhibit preparation of the Space Shuttle," Dunbarsaid. "The Space Gallery, and the space shuttle, if awarded to Washingtonstate, will be another centerpiece to deliver these important educationalprograms in a multi-state region. We also believe this can inspire the nextgeneration of scientists and engineers, so that we can provide solutions to 21stcentury problems, and help the nation remain economically competitive."

Someof the other institutions trying to snag one of the other retired orbitersinclude: the Johnson Space Center in Houston; the National Museum of the U.S.Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio; the Museum ofFlight in Seattle; and the Intrepid Air & Space Museum in New York City.

Thedecision from NASA on the distribution of Enterprise, Atlantis and Endeavour isexpected this month at the earliest, which would give the selected museumsapproximately one year to raise funds and build the required indoor housing forthe shuttles.

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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.