The space shuttle Discovery is set to land for the last time Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It will then be sent off to the Smithsonian for retirement as NASA shuts down the shuttle program. Two orbiters remain — Endeavour and Atlantis — and museums all around the country are vying to score one of them.
One of the most appealing ways a museum can sell itself to NASA is to tell officials about the yellow school buses in the parking lot. The kids come in — their heads full of computer games — and they see actual airplanes and rockets.
"We get that question a lot from students: 'Is this real?'" and go, 'Yes, it really is — this airplane actually flew during World War II,'" says Judith Wehn, who runs the educational programs at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
Wehn says she loves to hear the word "wow."
"You can see a shuttle on television, but imagine standing right next to it," she says. "You can really get an idea of the scope of this thing. The shuttle orbiter itself is 122 feet long — the distance of the Wright Brothers' first flight was 120 feet."
Landing A Shuttle At Dayton
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, which is part of the military, is located on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base just a few miles from Dayton. The Wright Brothers' original flying field is nearby, and museum directors say there's a teachable heritage in the area. They also contend that their location is key.
"We have free admission and free parking here, and we're within a day's drive of 61 percent of the American population," says Ret. Lt. Gen. Jack Hudson, the museum director.
To go through the museum is a long day's walking — there are more than 300 exhibits: the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki; an SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane; Titan missiles; an Apollo space capsule. For Hudson and his team of curators, it's important to get the planes that come with stories.
"The A-10 that you see over here was flown by a pilot whose name is Paul Johnson," Hudson says. "He flew that in Operation Desert Storm on an eight-hour mission where he was flying top cover for other people who were rescuing a downed pilot. So people have worked long and hard to get the right kind of airplanes in here with the right significance. And the one we would really like to have in here — to be the capstone of the collection — is the shuttle."
Collecting Memories From Spaceflight
The shuttle Discovery is, at this moment, in orbit; Endeavour and Atlantis each has one more flight.
Former astronaut Mark Brown, who has flown on Discovery and Challenger, says the museum is raising money for a new space gallery.
"Right now we have a little over 1.1 million people a year come through, and if you're really optimistic we could actually double that," Brown says.
Brown wants to collect memories from all the former astronauts to help the museum bring space closer to the public.
"When you're actually going out to the launch pad, you're all wearing your pressure suits and you're riding in the Astrovan, which is a shiny aluminum RV, down the road out to the rocket that's on the launch pad," Brown recalls. "And you feel like you're in a science-fiction movie — it is really cool and you're looking around at each other like, 'Wow. We're going to go to space today.' How often do you get to do that?" Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.