By Scott Powers and Mark K. Matthews, Orlando Sentinel
4:39 PM CDT, April 12, 2011
CAPE CANAVERAL — When space shuttle Atlantis returns from its final mission in July, it will come home to stay at Kennedy Space Center.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced Tuesday that the Visitors Center here will get to keep and display Atlantis for visitors and for the thousands of KSC workers who spent their careers launching the shuttles into orbit over the past three decades.
As expected, KSC won a nationwide sweepstakes to keep one of the three remaining active shuttles that have been the backbone of America's space program since 1981. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Brevard County, had pushed hard to keep Atlantis here.
Bolden delivered the news to more than 500 cheering NASA officials and employees gathered outside KSC's orbiter maintenance facility — where Atlantis is being prepared for its final mission — for a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle launch.
Bolden also announced that shuttle Discovery, as expected, will go to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. The Smithsonian in turn will give up Enterprise, a full-scale shuttle mockup that never made it into orbit, which will be displayed on board the retired aircraft carrier Intrepid in New York City.
Endeavour, the final active shuttle, will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
The announcement touched off a party at the KSC Visitor Complex, with live bands, dancing and shuttle-shaped cakes in front of its shuttle mock-up attraction, Explorer. More than 1,500 NASA workers were expected to join in.
"This is really about the legacy the space programs have done over the years," said Bill Moore, chief operating officer at the KSC Visitor Complex. "To be able to display Atlantis, I think, really boosts the spirits of the locals and of the state of Florida, and I think people will come from around the world."
Everyone expected KSC to get a shuttle, since Bolden was making the announcement here. Before he even got the words out of his mouth – as an image of Atlantis flashed across video screens -- the NASA employees erupted into applause. As Bolden went from surprise to laughter to tears, the crowd stood in ovation.
Bolden's emotional swing reflected not only the joy in the gathering but his own personal experiences, as a former astronaut and colleague of 14 astronauts lost with two shuttles, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. His voice broke as he recalled them as friends.
His emotions also reflected the political stress he faced in the decisions.
"You have no idea what that applause means to me," he said. "It's been a rough day."
At least 17 other cities had applied for a shuttle— including Houston, home of Johnson Space Center where astronauts train and shuttle Mission Control.
"The thought of an orbiter not coming home to rest at Space Center Houston is truly tragic," said a clearly angry U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas. "It is analogous to Detroit without a Model-T, or Florence without a da Vinci."
Like other Texas Republicans, he accused the Democratic administration of Barack Obama of playing politics in deciding where to send the orbiters. And in fact, both states that got shuttles – California and New York – are reliably Democratic.
In a later press conference, NASA officials insisted their decision was based entirely on pre-announced criteria such as projected attendance and broad public access, not politics.
Olga Dominguez, who as NASA associate administrator of strategic infrastructure oversaw the sweepstakes, said that Houston, Chicago, Dayton, Seattle and other places will be getting what she called "significant" shuttle artifacts, such as simulators and other training equipment.
The Atlantis award is a moral and morale victory for the Space Coast, but also a reminder of times past. The area is losing more than 7,000 jobs with the retirement of the shuttle program later this year, and NASA has no plans for a successor program for at least seven years.
Endeavour is set to launch April 29 on an 14-day mission to the International Space Station. When it returns, workers will drain its toxic fuels and clean up other chemicals so that it's suitable for public display. Discovery is already in that process.
Atlantis will end the shuttle program with its final mission, currently set for a late-June launch.
The Visitor Center intends to spend $75 million on a building to house Atlantis in a display that will make it look as if it is flying in space. NASA expects all the shuttles to be delivered by the end of 2012. The KSC Visitor Center intends to open the Atlantis attraction in 2013.
Mark K. Matthews can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Scott Powers can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5441.