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Cities, space centers, museums want to be shuttles' final landing spot

By John Zarrella, CNN
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States bid for space shuttle orbiter
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Several sites are vying to be the final homes of the retiring space shuttles
  • The shuttles Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis carry historic and economic value
  • NASA administrator Charlie Bolden will announce Tuesday where the shuttles will go
  • April 12 marks the date of the first human space flight and, 20 years later, the first shuttle flight

Kennedy Space Center, Florida (CNN) -- Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space -- the date was April 12, 1961. Twenty years later on April 12, astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen got on board the space shuttle Columbia, a craft that looked more like a plane that a rocket ship. It launched an entirely new era in space flight.

Now, on the anniversary of those two historic events, NASA is scheduled to announce where the retiring orbiters Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis will call home.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will make the announcement Tuesday during a ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center commemorating that first flight of Columbia on April 12, 1981. NASA officials say the orbiter Atlantis, being readied for the final shuttle flight this summer, will be the backdrop for the announcement. Hundreds of center workers are expected to attend -- many of them will likely lose their jobs when the shuttle program ends.

Because the announcement is being made at Kennedy, the speculation is that the visitor center here will be awarded one of the shuttles. It is one of more than 20 locations around the country with collective fingers crossed.

The drama mirrors the bidding to host an Olympic games. In Texas, home of the Johnson Space Center, members of that state's delegation publicly lobbied for a shuttle. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, said during a news conference, "No city in the world deserves an orbiter more than Houston, Texas."

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Besides Florida and Texas, the Museum of Flight in Seattle wants one. In fact, one wall of a new space gallery where a shuttle would be housed is already up. The museum's president, Doug King, says museum officials don't have any inside information. "I think that confident may be too strong a word. I think that hopeful is probably a better one," he says.

Facilities in Chicago, New York, Dayton, Ohio, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, also all want one.

Landing an orbiter will be huge. The Kennedy visitor center estimates a shuttle will bring in 200,000 more guests every year. The economic impact to the area is estimated at $15 million. At New York's Intrepid Museum, Executive Director Susan Marenoff told CNN, "Figure over 300,000 people additional to the Intrepid, to New York City. Couple that with $106 million in economic benefit, we think that's a pretty good deal."

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A good deal, Marenoff says because the winning locations have to fork over $28.8 million to NASA for the vehicles. They also must guarantee a climate-controlled building will be constructed to house their shuttle. That's still a bargain, officials at the bidding locations say, because of return on investment as one of only three locations in the world that will have a shuttle that flew in space.

One of the orbiters -- Discovery, the oldest -- is already believed to be spoken for. The overwhelming odds are it's heading to the Smithsonian. The Enterprise, a test shuttle, which never flew into space, is there now. It would be awarded, at a discounted price, to one of the locations that does not get either Endeavour or Atlantis.

The announcement of the winning locations will make one thing crystal clear: the space shuttle program is coming to a close. The winged lifting bodies launched satellites, built a space station, launched and repaired a telescope. Now, they become museum pieces.