If y’all had come to Space Center Houston, they’d have built a home for a retired space shuttle there. Well, maybe. Today’s report of the NASA inspector general points out a few details in the story of how Houston lost out in the retired-space-shuttle home sweepstakes. At a presentation given to NASA administrator Charles Bolden in November 2009, 4 out of 5 options being considered at the time by the agency’s recommendation team would have given Houston a shuttle. And Bolden says Houston was a sentimental favorite for him, too. He told investigators
that if it had been strictly a personal decision, his preference would have been to place an Orbiter in Houston. He noted that “[a]s a resident of Texas and a person who . . . spent the middle of my Marine Corps career in Houston, I would have loved to have placed an Orbiter in Houston.”
So what happened?
After that 2009 meeting, Bolden told the team that he didn’t think it would be fair to take into account a location’s historic connection to NASA or the shuttle program. Instead, he wanted them to set up a rating system that would reward locations where the orbiters would be seen by the largest number of people — especially international visitors. And according to the report (PDF), he insulated the team from both his own personal preferences and any political pressures.
Despite his own personal preference, Bolden told investigators, he “could not ignore that Space Center Houston had relatively low attendance rates and provided significantly lower international access than the locations selected.” Those scoring categories — in the rating system he pushed for — are what killed it for Houston.
According to the not-so-complex scoring system used by the team, the competition wasn’t even close. Only one of the 14 institutions vying for a used shuttle scored lower than Space Center Houston — and that was George Bush’s favorite, the Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History at Texas A&M. Tying with Houston at 60 out of 100 points were the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Ahead of Houston in the scoring process — but still not scoring a shuttle — were Seattle’s Museum of Flight, the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio; Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, the San Diego Air and Space Museum; the March Field Air Museum in Riverside, California; and the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.
Damn, what was Houston’s problem?
Houston scored lowest on 6 of the 9 criteria set up by the rating team: Space Center Houston had no certification or accreditation by the American Association of Museums or the Smithsonian Institution (0 out of 10 points) and low attendance (5 out of 10 points), didn’t have a facility available yet (5 out of 10 points), and would need to raise funds for the exhibition (5 out of 10 points); transporting the orbiter from the local airport would be moderately difficult or risky (5 out of 10 points); and Houston gets only about 478,000 international visitors per year, according to Commerce Dept. statistics. (5 out of 15 points).
- Review of NASA’s Selection of Display Locations for the Space Shuttle Orbiters (PDF) [NASA OIG]
- Houston did not get a shuttle because of Charlie Bolden [Houston Chronicle]
- Report finds flaws in shuttle decision that left Ohio out [Marion Star]
- Previously on Swamplot: No Shuttle Parking: Space Center Houston’s Innovative Garage Design Loses Out