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Published: Tuesday, 4/19/2011

NASA ignores heartland as home for retiring shuttle

BY THOMAS WALTON
BLADE COLUMNIST

Forget about the impending retirement of America's space shuttle fleet for a moment. Let's concentrate on something more devoutly to be wished: the retirement of NASA administrator Charles Bolden.

Mr. Bolden, a former astronaut and shuttle commander, had to decide where our four retiring space shuttles -- Endeavour, Atlantis, Discovery, and one that never flew, Enterprise -- would land for the last time.

Twenty-one museums and science centers across the country applied to NASA for one of the shuttles. Seventeen of them lost out. They all knew what their chances were going in.

But to put it charitably, Mr. Bolden blew it. His four winners: New York City will get Enterprise, Los Angeles will get Endeavour, the Smithsonian in Washington will get Discovery, and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida will get Atlantis.

Houston, we have a problem. You didn't make the cut. Dayton? Neither did you.

Where did the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base finish in the competition? In fifth place, or first place among the losers if you want to see the glass half full.

What's wrong with this guy? Did he spend too much time in zero gravity?

The folks in Dayton are understandably angry. Every Ohioan should share their distress. The shuttles, automatic tourism boosters and economic generators for the cities that get them, are going to areas that already are tourist magnets.

The Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and the Kennedy Space Center each deserves a shuttle. No argument there. The Smithsonian is home to some of the grandest vehicles in the history of flight, including the Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, and John Glenn's Mercury space capsule, Friendship 7.

Every shuttle launch -- 144 thunderous departures -- has occurred at Cape Canaveral. There can be no more dramatic and heart-pounding sight than to witness a shuttle launch up close. I've had that privilege twice. The place where it all happened deserves to bring one home.

But what have New York and Los Angeles done for the space program? L.A. has Disneyland, which has a ride called Space Mountain. That's about it.

Despite the pride that Mickey Mouse must feel, nobody was more surprised by this political screwup, I suspect, than the good people of Los Angeles. And one wonders whether the news produced anything more than a big yawn in the Big Apple.

The competition was supposedly coast to coast, but in the end, only the coasts mattered. Shut out was the American heartland. Chicago applied. Sorry. Houston, home of Mission Control and the Johnson Space Center -- where every astronaut who has ever flown has trained -- applied. Nope.

The cases made by both were excellent and persuasive, but nobody made a better argument -- after the Smithsonian and the Florida Space Coast -- than the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson.

The museum already attracts 1.3 million visitors a year. Two of America's busiest interstate highways, I-75 and I-70, intersect just a few miles from the museum. Dayton, in fact, is within a day's drive of 60 percent of the country's population. Imagine what parking a shuttle at Wright-Patt would have done for tourism in Montgomery County and southwest Ohio.

U.S. Rep. Steve Austria, a Republican from Beavercreek whose district includes part of Wright-Patterson, told the Dayton Daily News that Mr. Bolden acknowledged the Air Force Museum met all of NASA's criteria for winning a shuttle.

Positives such as education and science programs, a climate-controlled display for housing the spacecraft, and easy accessibility apparently impressed NASA, but not enough to crack the top four.

What about history? Dayton remains the birthplace of aviation. The Wright brothers may have first flown their airplane in North Carolina, but their work in Dayton changed the world.

Much later, New Concord's John Glenn became the first American in space. Another Ohioan, Neil Armstrong, a son of Wapakoneta and Upper Sandusky, boldly went where no man had gone before -- and walked on the surface of the moon.

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown wants a federal investigation, particularly since regional diversity was among the criteria Congress expected NASA to consider.

An assistant NASA administrator, Olga Dominguez, tried to explain to the media that the shuttle decisions were based on the perceived value to taxpayers as well as "domestic and international access."

Perceived value? Where is the perceived value to the many millions of American taxpayers who don't live on the coasts?

International access? We're denying middle America the opportunity to have a retired shuttle relatively close by, while we situate the fleet on our coasts for the convenience of foreigners who don't pay the bills? Visitors from Europe don't know how to find Ohio?

With that kind of logic at our space agency, how did we ever get Mr. Armstrong to the moon and bring him safely home?

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com



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