Why No Shuttle for Houston? Because Space Center Houston Isn’t So Big with the Tourists

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).

Photo: Uptake

24 Comment

  • Reasonable criteria, I suppose. But I think it also would have been reasonable for someone to say that historic factors were more important.

  • Even if you give Houston another 15 points for historic ties, we trail CSC and intrepid. These things don’t belong to NASA, they belong to the nation and this way the nation gets to see them. Honestly, who here would have visited it more than once after it were put in place?

  • The city should have proposed to put the shuttle exhibit in IAH – definitely Houston’s largest attraction.

  • By his logic the Vegas Strip should have got one, too.

  • Let’s face it, if you’ve ever been to Space Center Houston, it’s mostly geared towards elementary school field trips. It wasn’t til just a few years ago, one of the *real* crown jewels of America’s leftover space hardware, a complete friggin Saturn V, was even given a roof to protect it from the elements for posterity. I love NASA and remember being able to run around all over the campus with nary a locked door as a kid, but JSC simply hasn’t kept up with being a top toursist destination, domestically or internationally. Much like other “attractions” in Houston, people see them incidentally when here visiting relatives or on business, they’re not destinations in themselves. I swear I think more people come down 45 and 59 from other states to see Galveston than Houston. Maybe we need to build that giant dome over the Loop after all to get some tourist cred.

  • I guess having ended up a career bureaucrat precluded him from considering the idea that a Shuttle placed in Houston would contribute to tourism. You know Mr. Bolden, bring more tourists, money and jobs to the area. Guess it’s the difference between “being a resident of Texas”, and being a Texan.

  • Bolden’s mission is Muslim outreach not space exploration. 5,000 contractors will lose their jobs in Houston by year-end but zero civil servants will receive pink slips. Obama be lovin those do nothing government jobs.

  • “Obama be lovin”? When’s the cross burning cross?

  • @ Jimbo

    Eat peas!

  • The years Houston has “suffered” for no longer having a Texas pork connection in the White House has really brought out the racist, conservative and “christian” whiners who miss the old days of good-ol-boy closed-door deals that benefited Texas for so many years. Now we’re a state of underachievers who can’t pump out kids smart enough to work for NASA, but boy, we sure can bitch about our lost legacy. Maybe if we focused on making this state great again instead of dwelling on a past we’ll never recapture unless we start taking a good look at what’s wrong here, we can be the “Great State of Texas” again instead of the backdrop of every Rick Perry joke that the rest of the nation is reveling in.

  • Surely “Eat peas!” is Comment Of The Day.


  • Racist much “cross”??? How do these comments get past the moderator. No wonder Houston is the armpit of Texas….And that’s saying alot! Redneck paradise.

  • How is “Obama be lovin” racist?

  • Good thing that shuttle isn’t sitting on the Hudson River right now because it might not survive Irene… Wonder what NYC’s plans were to protect the shuttle?

  • Third-generation Texan/Houstonian here, now in Oregon for work. I have been to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, OR (an exurb near Portland), and I have to tell you: it puts Space Center Houston to shame. Really, is SCH even a museum? I wish it were different, because I’m a proud Texan. But look at the other comments about the lack of strong content and the neglect at SCH. We have to open our eyes to a more competitive world outside Texas–the same thing happened to Dallas a few years back when Boeing chose Chicago over Big D for its new HQ (Dallas folks: “How could they?”). I think Dallas and its business and political leaders, then, upped its game in a lot of ways that have helped since.

  • knowing a NASA team was assigned to perform this level of analysis makes me less bitter about losing the opportunity. sure, i’d love to only have to burn a couple of gallons of houston’s re-finest to touch the real thing, but i have to echo the soft sentiment for what is billed as a “houston” attraction (despite being an uncomfortable drive for 90% of houston proper). if after you become a FMECA (failure mode effects and criticality analysis) expert you decide to post, the rest of the scientific world is listening.

  • The problem is the thing is in clear lake. If we would have built a mesuem for the shuttle in the Houston museum district it would have attracked folks. Putting this pork in BFE 40 years ago finally bit us in the ass.

  • Houston, Huntsville and Cocoa Beach are the space program and the decision should have been made based on historical importance and not whether the area is a tourist trap. Plenty of people would come to Houston to see such a piece of our history and the genesis for much of the worlds technical advancement. Bolden is President Obamas lap dog hatchet man and there is no report or commision which can change that. He should be asked to leave the Houston area and not come back. He is a lousy administrator who was put there because he would not utter a peep when the space program was gutted. Given our current economic problems in this country it is perhaps necessary that the spending on space be cut back, but frankyly that could be accomplished by a return to the origins of spaceflight when it was understood and accepted that there would be accidents and loss of life. Those original 7 astronauts all knew and accepted that danger, because they were adrenaline junkies as well as brave individuals. Instead we have taken safety to a level where we cannot afford the cost. I venture a guess that even now most of the current astronauts would tell you that they would die for the opportunity to go into space. Most of us cannot understand that because we do not have that in our makeup.

  • It’s very convenient to pretend that California had no part in the space program, particularly if you are trying to advance the conspiracy theory that California only got a shuttle because they are a blue state. However it conveniently ignores the fact that all of the orbiters were built either in Palmdale CA or Downey CA. To be honest if California had not got a shuttle it would have been more of a snub than Houston not getting one. Southern California has been instrumental in the design and manufacture of pretty much every spacecraft we have ever launched. Hell, Saturn V was built in California, they should probably be griping that we got that one instead of them. Take off the tin hats folks and get back to reality.

  • it’s amazing how much of the complaining boils down to “But Mommy, I *WANT* it.”

    The shuttle isn’t Houston’s. It’s America’s. The best use for it is to educate and inspire young people and get them interested in space exploration. Wherever it can do that is the best place for it.

    The “controversy” about this mostly makes Houston looks like the home of a bunch of whiney-ass pussies who throw a fit when they don’t get their candy. Sad.

  • Maybe if Space Center Houston was actually about, oh, maybe SPACE, it would be more popular. Everytime I see anything about SCH it is hosting something about NASCAR racing or bugs or Harry Potter. It is an embarassment and I really can’t blame NASA for not wanting to put a shuttle there.

  • I agree with Bolden, our proposal sucked rocket butt. The shuttles will provide much more interest in NASA elsewhere. Boohoo, the quarterback got the prom queen even after we tutored her in math.

    As for the current administration “gutting” the space program, get used to NASA in a new role. I’m a space fanatic and a big fan of NASA’s achievements, but I see this as inevitable. Painful change, but needed. The only way to overcome the tremendous financial and technological hurdles of colonizing the solar system at more than the current snail’s pace is with a much more balanced collaborative effort between NASA, private industry and foreign programs.

  • I disagree with Bolden changing the criteria, that was a horrible move on his part. Historical significance and connection to the program should have played a much larger role; otherwise, if we want to put shuttles where they’ll be seen by international tourists why don’t we put them in Disney Land and Vegas while we’re at it? By the way, why is it more important that international tourists see them than our own citizens? Are we trying to flaunt our achievements to other countries? If that was a decision made under Bush he’d be getting crucified right now.

    But in defense of Bolden, it’s also quite possible that he is just the fall guy for Obama right now; after all, Bolden has to do what his boss directs. In 2010, his boss directed him to make Muslim outreach a prime focus for NASA. No joke, google it.

    THAT’S what’s sad. Not Houston being rightfully upset over changing criteria and a huge snub after decades of dedication to the program.