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 Los Angeles to New York from engaging in a new space race to land one of the soon-to-be-retired 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, spaceflight history curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. She called them the most significant space artifacts to become available since the Apollo and Skylab command modules in the 1970s.
Florida, where the shuttle is launched, and Texas, home to mission control, both 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 chief executive of the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Shuttle components were manufactured in Downey and assembled in Palmdale. That's 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, Okla.; Huntsville, Ala.; and McMinnville, Ore.; home of another big flying machine — the Spruce Goose, formerly of Long Beach.
NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. has final say over who will receive one of the shuttles, which one bidder called "the modern-day equivalent of housing Columbus' famed ships — the Nina, the Pinta or the Santa Maria."
No date has been set for a decision, but the shuttle, workhorse of the space program for three decades, is scheduled to make its final flight next year.
Bolden has heard from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who flew with him during a 1986 shuttle mission, on behalf of Kennedy Space Center's commercially operated visitor complex. Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland pitched the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton to President Obama when he visited the state. New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum rallied supporters to dress up in spacesuits and ride the train to call attention to its bid.
NASA wants to retire the shuttle fleet so it can use more of its $19-billion budget to develop a new line of spacecraft that could visit Mars. Obama this year challenged NASA to put astronauts on a nearby asteroid by 2025.
The space agency 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.
But bidders see a potential economic boon to their communities from landing a shuttle, not to mention a big payload of prestige.
"It is no wonder that the competition is so fierce for something that is an icon in American history," said Deborah F. Cowman, executive director of the Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History in Bryan, Texas, one of at least three institutions in the state pursuing a shuttle. Its bid has received the support of President George H.W. Bush, whose presidential library is nearby.
"It has the ability to inspire and help educate generations of Americans," Cowman added. "What museum wouldn't want that?"
The California Science Center in Exposition Park and the San Diego Air & Space Museum are pursuing a shuttle.
In Riverside County, the coalition of local governments that operates the former March Air Force Base also is pursuing a shuttle. The March Field Air Museum proposes to take visitors on a "space walk" around the star attraction under changing images of the Earth flashed above.
"We think we're clearly the best choice," said Mark Yarbrough, a coalition member and councilman from Perris (population 56,000) who is undaunted by the competition from New York (population 8.4 million).
NASA has asked bidders to describe the "benefit to the nation" from their receiving a shuttle, including how they would use an orbiter to "inspire the American public and students."
Bidders must convince NASA they can get a shuttle with a 78-foot wingspan to their facility, seemingly no easy task for metropolitan museums.
"That's not a huge concern to us," said Rudolph of the California Science Center, citing the 150-foot-long Douglas DC-8 aircraft on display at the center. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in support of the center's bid, pledged "every accommodation to assist with the transport of the orbiter over California highways."
But first California has to beat out Florida and Texas.
Lawmakers in those states tried to slip a measure into a NASA bill that would give preference to communities with a "historical relationship with either the launch, flight operations or processing" of shuttles. But it was stripped out of the House bill after Ohio and Oregon lawmakers objected.
In support of Houston's bid, the state's congressional delegation wrote Bolden that they were not simply seeking "to add a relic to a museum for those to just look at a marvel of modern engineering." For people in Houston and from the Johnson Space Center who dedicated their careers to human space flight, "it represents a life's work."
At the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, spokesman Al Whitaker offered this reason to get a shuttle.
"We're known the world over as the Rocket City."
It has somebody high — really high — in the political orbit who might put in a good word to help its bid.