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

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

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

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

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

Space shuttle dreams

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

The state-of-the-art "Human Space Flight Gallery" will be located on the west side of Marginal Way, across the street from the main museum campus. The Washington State legislature approved $3 million in capital support to build the new gallery, with the remaining funds coming from private foundations and individual donations.

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

Owen said that the new space gallery will play an important role as an educational landmark for science and engineering, in addition to stimulating tourism in Washington.

Shuttle retirement home

A climate-controlled building for the space shuttle is among the requirements that NASA established for museums that will be chosen to host one of the orbiters. Seattle's Museum of Flight is hoping to be a strong contender. ?

"The shuttle is among the rarest of space artifacts," said Michael Hallman, Interim Museum President, in a statement. "The possibility of securing one is very exciting, and would be a tremendous opportunity for the state of Washington in terms of the economy, tourism and the educational impact this could have on our community."

"We believe our institution has the finest education, curatorial, and exhibits staff to be found anywhere and we believe we're uniquely qualified to be an outstanding caretaker for this incredible piece of American history," he added.

Dunbar also stressed the space shuttle's ability to promote and inspire future scientists and engineers.

"Education will be central to the exhibit preparation of the Space Shuttle," Dunbar said. "The Space Gallery, and the space shuttle, if awarded to Washington state, will be another centerpiece to deliver these important educational programs in a multi-state region. We also believe this can inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, so that we can provide solutions to 21st century problems, and help the nation remain economically competitive."

Some of the other institutions trying to snag one of the other retired orbiters include: 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 of Flight in Seattle; and the Intrepid Air & Space Museum in New York City.

The decision from NASA on the distribution of Enterprise, Atlantis and Endeavour is expected this month at the earliest, which would give the selected museums approximately one year to raise funds and build the required indoor housing for the shuttles.