The sky was no limit for the space shuttle program in 1991. Three shuttles orbited Earth regularly, and a fourth, Endeavour, had just rolled off a Palmdale production line. With construction of the International Space Station looming, the future was bright for NASA’s prized fleet.
The space agency planned to use the shuttles for many years, perhaps decades. But Ken Phillips was already thinking ahead.
Phillips, aerospace curator of the California Science Center, made an audacious proposal to his boss that year: Acquire one of the shuttles. Someday.
Science Center President Jeffrey Rudolph pounced on the idea. By August 1992 — three months after Endeavour’s maiden voyage — Rudolph had blueprints showing a retired orbiter perched upright in a yet-to-be-built wing of the museum devoted to air and space exploration.
Even as long-range plans go, this was a doozy — “pie in the sky,” Phillips recalled recently. But two decades later, the shuttle sketched in those blueprints sits in a hangar at Los Angeles International Airport, awaiting a two-day celebratory crawl over city streets to its permanent home at the Exposition Park museum.
Phillips and Rudolph are being congratulated for their prescience. But having foresight was only the first step.
When Endeavour rolled off the production line 21 years ago, it was to replace the Challenger, which exploded shortly after launch in 1986. The new “jewel of the fleet” had more bells and whistles than other orbiters and was expected to fly 100 missions over the coming years. But it would complete only 25.
In 2004, not long after another of the shuttles, Columbia, disintegrated on reentry, then-President George W. Bush announced that the shuttle program was coming to an end.
NASA began planning for retirement, and in 2008 asked interested museums to submit a 25-page proposal describing how they might display a shuttle.
Twenty-one museums, space centers and institutions replied, including the California Science Center. Speculation began to mount over where the shuttles would go.
Many assumed that the test shuttle Enterprise, which was at a Smithsonian museum in Virginia, would be swapped with one of the three other orbiters. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida was a front-runner. Other possibilities included Seattle, home of Boeing, and Dayton, Ohio, which has the Air Force Museum and touts the birthplace of the Wright brothers.
“Not a lot of folks thought of us as a favorite,” Rudolph said.
Many applicants went public with their lobbying efforts, drawing support from senators and other elected officials.
Houston, the “Space City” that boasts Johnson Space Center, launched an extensive public relations campaign that included 90,000 letters of support. The families of the astronauts who died aboard Challenger and Columbia met with NASA’s top administrator to urge selection of the Texas city. State lawmakers wrote to President Obama, arguing that denying an orbiter to Houston would “forever diminish the service” the city provided to the shuttle program and “create a blemish on its significance to the legacy of NASA.”
The Science Center took the opposite path. The museum solicited no letters of recommendation, made no public pleas.
In the proposal, Phillips wrote about the educational opportunities a shuttle would provide the free, state-run museum. He included exhibit designs and described how the museum would explain the science and engineering behind a shuttle.
“We were trying to let NASA understand that we were creative in our thinking, that we had thought about this for a long time,” Phillips said.
The museum planned to draw on the aerospace industry’s strong Southern California roots, explaining how the shuttle was built. Although the orbiter would be seen but not entered by the public, the Science Center would bring the mid-deck living quarters — and toilet — out for display so visitors could see what life was like for astronauts. Other elements would be brought into the museum to re-create the launch stack.
Phillips sent in the application in March 2009. Ten months later, NASA issued another request for information. The new head of the agency, Charles Bolden, had asked for a reevaluation of the selection process. Bolden wanted the shuttles housed in locations that would draw a large number of visitors — local, domestic and international — to “serve NASA’s goal of expanding outreach and education efforts to spur interest in science, technology and space exploration.”
This time, 29 institutions expressed interest. NASA narrowed the list to 13, including the Science Center, the San Diego Air and Space Museum, a Chicago planetarium, Johnson Space Center and several other NASA sites. The finalists were scored on a series of criteria, including their funding, international access, attendance and ability to meet the shuttle delivery schedule.
The Science Center topped the list. It not only had an excellent proposal for housing an orbiter but was in the West Coast’s largest city, one that had extensive ties to the shuttle program.
But Phillips didn’t know his museum was the front-runner, or that some NASA officials thought the best choice for Los Angeles was Enterprise, the test shuttle at the Smithsonian. Enterprise was lighter than the three shuttles that had actually flown, making it easier to transport over urban streets to the museum.
A NASA aide called Phillips on April 11, 2011, a day before the agency was to announce the winners. Would the Science Center accept the test model if that was the only one available?
Of course, Phillips said.
Then came: If you had a choice, which shuttle would you take?
He wanted one that had actually flown; they were more authentic than the test shuttle. “They’re really pretty beat up … but beat up in a really great way,” Phillips later explained. “It can tell this fantastic story about what they’ve been through.”
As he prepared to answer the question, Phillips remembered that a California state senator once asked NASA to retire the shuttle Atlantis in the Antelope Valley. “I didn’t want to seem like California didn’t have its act together, so I said Atlantis,” Phillips recalled. “But I really wanted Endeavour. I didn’t have the nerves to say it.”
Endeavour was not only the newest shuttle, but it had flown several historic missions. Phillips also felt a personal connection to Endeavour as the replacement for Challenger. His college friend at North Carolina A&T; University, Ronald McNair, was one of the seven astronauts killed when Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff.
Phillips hung up the phone, excited and anxious.
He was at work by 6 a.m. the next day, waiting.
Bolden called. Atlantis would stay with the Kennedy Space Center, Discovery was heading to the Smithsonian, test shuttle Enterprise would be moved to New York — and Endeavour was coming to Los Angeles.
Phillips told his co-workers. The room erupted in cheers. Rudolph called the governor.
Then, two decades after Phillips’ “pie in the sky” proposal, he turned to a colleague.
“I hope I heard him right,” he said.