NASA not coerced into giving shuttles to L.A., N.Y., report says
NASA’s decision to award retired space shuttles to Los Angeles, New York, Florida and the Washington area was not the result of improper political influence, according to an investigation spurred by complaints from Houston and other areas that lost out in the fierce competition for an orbiter.
"While the administrator was subject to a great deal of pressure from members of Congress and other interested parties, we found no evidence that this pressure had any influence on his decision about where to place the orbiters," NASA’s inspector general said in a report released Thursday.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in April selected the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virgina, Florida’s Kennedy Space Center and the California Science Center in Los Angeles to receive Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, respectively. New York City’s Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum landed the Enterprise.
His decision prompted a barage of criticism from members of Congress, especially from Texas. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who said at the time that putting a shuttle in Manhattan is "like putting the Statue of Liberty in Omaha.'' New York is due to receive a test orbiter that never flew into space. "One Giant Snub for Houston," read the headline in the Houston Chronicle.
NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin said that a review of Bolden’s decision found that the selections resulted from a process that emphasized locating the shuttles in places where the most people would have the opportunity to view them. In L.A.’s case, NASA officials have cited the Science Center’s proximity to the Southern California locations where the shuttles were designed and built.
Of interest to Los Angeles, the NASA team that reviewed bids for retired shuttles recommended that the Enterprise, the test shuttle, go to Los Angeles and the Endeavor to New York.
"Team members told Bolden that they had not recommended placement of a flown orbiter at the Science Center because of concerns that its added weight –- approximately 195,000 pounds compared with about 156,700 pounds for Enterprise -– would make it more difficult to transport the vehicle the roughly 15 miles from Los Angeles International Airport" to Exposition Park.
"However, Bolden was concerned that under this scenario all three flown orbiters would be placed on the East Coast, with the Intrepid receiving a flown orbiter even though the Science Center had received a higher overall score" in the competition, according to the report.
NASA plans to store Endeavour in Kennedy’s Vehicle Assembly Building until June 2012, when the orbiter will be ferried from Kennedy to LAX on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. The Science Center may use a refurbished “overland transporter” to move Endeavour by road to a temporary display facility adjacent to the Science Center. Endeavour will be displayed there until the permanent facility is completed in 2016, where it will be displayed in a vertical position as if on a launchpad, the report says.
Bolden was "emphatic," according to the report, "that even though politicians and others tried to sway him to award an orbiter to their city or state, neither politics nor his personal preferences played any role in his decision. He was equally adamant that he did not speak with the president about the decision and that he was not pressured by anyone in the White House to decide in a particular way."
Bolden told the inspector general’s office that he set aside his personal preferences in order to make the best selections for NASA and the nation. "Bolden said that if it had been strictly a personal decision, his preference would have been to place an orbiter in Houston," but he could not ignore that Space Center Houston had relatively low attendance rates and provided significantly lower international access than the locations selected.
The inspector general found that a NASA team that reviewed the bids for shuttles made several errors, including one that would have resulted in a numerical tie among the Intrepid, the Kennedy Visitor Complex, and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Bolden told the inspector general, according to its report, that had he been aware of the tie, he would have made the same decision because "he believes the chosen locations will best serve NASA’s goal to spur interest in science, technology, and space exploration.’’
The inspector general’s office noted the agency repeatedly delayed announcing which locations would receive an orbiter, in one case, after the White House expressed concern that a negative reaction from key members of Congress might interfere with ongoing negotiations over NASA’s budget.
Winners must each come up with $28.8 million to cover preparation and delivery costs.
Richard Simon in Washington
Photo: Space shuttle Endeavour ends its last mission as it lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 1. Credit: Reuters