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NASA weighs homes for retired shuttles

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- As the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch draws near, the focus is not so much on the past but the future: Where will the shuttles wind up once the program winds down?

Twenty-one museums and science and visitor centers around the country are vying for one of NASA's three retiring spaceships. They'll find out Tuesday on the 30th anniversary of Columbia's maiden voyage.

Snagging Discovery, Atlantis or Endeavour for display doesn't come cheap. NASA puts the tab at $28.8 million. Consider that a bargain. Early last year, NASA dropped the price from $42 million.

One space shuttle is already spoken for -- the Smithsonian Institution is getting Discovery, NASA's oldest and most traveled shuttle that ended its flying career last month. It will go to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's annex near Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, taking the place of Enterprise, the shuttle prototype used for tests in the late 1970s.

That frees up Enterprise for another museum, so there will be three other winners -- a 1-in-7 chance.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., a former shuttle commander, is making the final decision, with input from a committee. He'll announce the winners Tuesday while marking the 30-year anniversary at Kennedy Space Center, NASA's launch and landing site near Cape Canaveral, and the front-runner in the nab-a-shuttle race.

As the big day looms, shuttle suitors are getting anxious and pulling out all the stops.

Even the prime contender, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, is jittery despite its "knock your socks off" endorsement from NASA's shuttle launch director. The commercially run tourist site wants to suspend the shuttle over visitors, with the payload bay doors wide open as if in orbit and the robot arm outstretched.

"We're extraordinarily nervous. We don't sleep much these days," Bill Moore, of the visitor complex, said last week. "Three of anything in the world, it's going to get awfully competitive. And three of the shuttles, I think, even raises the bar."

Locally, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan also has applied for a shuttle.

NASA originally had four space shuttles. Challenger was destroyed during liftoff in 1986, killing its seven-member crew, and Endeavour was built as a replacement. Then Columbia disintegrated in 2003 on re-entry, killing all seven on board.

Columbia was the first to fly on April 12, 1981, 20 years to the day that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the world's first spaceman. Tuesday also marks the 50th anniversary of his flight.

Endeavour -- headed by astronaut Mark E. Kelly, a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy alumnus and the husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) -- is set to soar April 29. Atlantis is due to close out the shuttle program with a June 28 liftoff.

All this was set in motion in 2004 by President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama stuck to the shuttle-ending agenda but canceled Bush's moon exploration plans, preferring to have NASA aim for an asteroid and Mars while private companies take over trips to and from the International Space Station.

Discovery, the first to be retired, should be ready this fall for its piggyback ride atop a modified jumbo jet to Washington. Before it can go on display, the shuttle must have toxic fuel and contaminated plumbing removed.

NASA also wants to pull out some pieces for analysis, to help in the development of future spaceships.

Two shuttle missions left

APRIL 29: Endeavour

JUNE 28: Atlantis

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