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Did Seattle 'lose' a space shuttle 25 years ago?

The Boeing 747 was integral to the shuttle program's early years, but Seattle gets left off the list of cities receiving one of the pioneering space ships.

It almost felt like what they call a “built in hold" in the countdown while NASA stopped the clock and made us all wait around for the news today. It was April 12, the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch; the 50th anniversary of the first flight of a human in space, the old Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin; and a perfect occasion to announce which lucky museums would be on the receiving end of NASA largesse as they deactivate the shuttle fleet and parse the individual ships out around the country.

A crowd had gathered at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, hoping to hear that a shuttle would soon be headed our way, and not just across the dark sky in low earth orbit.

Museum officials were confident that NASA would agree that Seattle was a perfect home for retired shuttle. The homegrown Boeing 747 had been critical to the shuttle program, especially in the early years, as the Enterprise piggybacked on the jumbo jet for important tests of unpowered landings, and post-spaceflight shuttles were ferried from the original landing strip at Edwards Air Force Base back to Cape Canaveral. In addition, the technology behind the heat resistant tiles was developed at the University of Washington, and dozens of astronauts have called the Pacific Northwest home.

First came the 15-minute video documentary about the shuttle program narrated by William Shatner, hard to watch on a big screen washed nearly white by the bright sun coming through the gallery windows that looked out on Boeing Field. Then came emotional remarks of nearly the same duration by NASA administrator Charles Bolden, and then, abruptly, the “countdown” ended and there was a series of quick announcements of where the shuttles would end up.

Seattle and the Museum of Flight were not on the list. We don’t have liftoff.

NASA has decided that shuttles will go to Kennedy Space Center in Florida; the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; California Museum of Science in Los Angeles; and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.

I was immediately struck by what Museum of Flight CEO Doug King said just moments after the bad news, “I believe if there were one or two more shuttles to go around, we would have one.”

King’s comment got me thinking that if perhaps the Challenger had not been lost in 1986 and the Columbia lost in 2003, chances are pretty good that one of the six shuttles would have pointed its heat-resistant nose toward Marginal Way South. I asked Bonnie Dunbar what she thought. Yakima-raised Dunbar, who flew on the shuttle and who stepped down as CEO of the museum last year to lead the charge to land an orbiter, said, “If there’d been some more shuttles that might have been a viable alternative, but you know that’s sort of in the past.”

But it wasn’t all bad news today: NASA will donate a “full-fuselage trainer” (FF-T for the city that hoped to give the world the SST?) from the Johnson Space Center in Houston that will fit quite nicely into the Space Gallery currently under construction across the street from the Museum of Flight’s main gallery. The FFT looks like a shuttle and is the same size, but museum officials said today that visitors will actually be able to get inside of it — something that would not have been possible with one of the four shuttles that were up for grabs. Those rare objects would have undoubtedly been artifacts of the “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH” variety.

Museum officials announced a day of free admission this coming Saturday, April 16, in celebration of the FFT donation. King also said that museum staff will travel to Houston later this month to begin figuring out how to disassemble the FFT and ship it back to Seattle. It could go on display as early as next year.


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