WASHINGTON — They've racked up a lot of mileage and their $28.8 million price — sans engine — should be enough to cause sticker shock. But that isn't stopping institutions from Chicago to Los Angeles from engaging in a new space race to land one of the soon-to-be-retired space shuttles.
Twenty-one institutions are in fierce competition for what one museum director called the rarest of space artifacts. They've enlisted former astronauts and high-flying officials to back their bids for one of three orbiters. Lawmakers have even tried to use congressional legislation to give their states a leg up.
"Like anything rare, the orbiters will be hugely popular attractions," said Valerie Neal, space history curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. They are the most significant space artifacts to become available since the Apollo and Skylab command modules in the 1970s, she said.
Florida, where the shuttle is launched, and Texas, home to mission control, say they deserve one. Ohio says it should get one because it was the home of the Wright brothers. New York City says it should get one because it can draw the biggest crowds.
At least three museums in Southern California, with its aerospace heritage, say they have the right stuff.
"The shuttle was created here," said Jeffrey Rudolph, president and CEO of the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Shuttle components were manufactured in Downey and assembled in Palmdale, not to mention that Southern California has been occasionally jarred by sonic booms from desert shuttle landings at Edwards Air Force Base.
Chicago's Adler Planetarium is competing, as are institutions in Seattle, Tulsa, Huntsville, Ala., and McMinnville, Ore., home of another big flying machine — the Spruce Goose.
NASA plans to send Discovery to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, leaving Atlantis and Endeavour up for grabs. Enterprise, the test orbiter displayed at the Smithsonian, is expected to be made available to another institution.
Winning bidders each must come up with $28.8 million to cover preparation and delivery costs.