We're writing letters to Santa: Please send a space shuttle to flight museum

The space shuttle orbiter Endeavor was set to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida early this morning for the 240-mile trip to the International Space Station.

It marks the Endeavor’s second-to-last journey to the space station as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration draws closer to the final space shuttle mission involving the orbiters Endeavor, Atlantis and Discovery.

With any luck, one of three space shuttles will land in Washington state when they are retired, showcased as a public exhibit at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle.

Joint memorials to President Barack Obama, Congress and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden are winding their way through the state House and Senate, making the case that the museum would be the appropriate permanent home for either the Atlantis or the Endeavor. The Discovery is headed to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

The joint memorials carry little political weight. House sponsor Rep. Bob Hasegawa, a Seattle Democrat whose district includes the Museum of Flight, jokingly calls them “letters to Santa Claus.”

But Washington state is considered a frontrunner among the 20 or so states and affiliated museums that have expressed interest in the space shuttles for some obvious reasons spelled out in the memorials. For example:

 • The Museum of Flight is a top-notch space and air museum capable of building a space shuttle indoor exhibit to house an orbiter and associated exhibits. The museum, which plays host to some 400,000 visitors each year, is the largest nongovernmental, nonprofit air and space museum in the nation.

If you’ve never visited the museum, it’s well worth the trip. I spent an afternoon there years ago with my son, who had a young boy’s fascination with airplanes and spacecraft. Combined with a trip to a Seattle Mariners game that night, it was one of those father-son outings to remember.

 • The museum sits adjacent to the Boeing Field’s 10,000-foot runway, which is capable of receiving delivery of space shuttles that are transported on the back of one of two Boeing 747s extensively modified by NASA.

 • The president and chief executive officer of the museum is Bonnie Dunbar, a former Rockwell engineer and astronaut who flew five space shuttle missions. In addition, 19 NASA astronauts were either born in Washington or have close ties to the state.

 • The state is home to The Boeing Co. plants and some 100,000 skilled workers and 600 other companies that specialize in or support the aerospace industry. It was Boeing that teamed with Lockheed to form the United Space Alliance, which has been instrumental in the operation of the Space Shuttle Program and International Space Station.

The space shuttle orbiters are the first spacecraft capable of launching into orbit like rockets, then returning to Earth as gliders. Used for scientific research and to deploy and repair space satellites, the shuttles typically have crews of about seven astronauts. They orbit at altitudes ranging from 150 miles to 250 miles and stay in space for 10 days to two weeks.

In the early 1980s, the initial shuttle launches held the rapt attention of the public. I remember standing in front of the television in The Olympian newsroom in 1986, watching in sickening horror as the Challenger and the seven aboard, including New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff.

A study following the Challenger disaster found that 17 percent of the respondents had watched the shuttle launch. The viewers included a disproportionate number of schoolchildren because NASA had arranged for a number of public schools across the country to watch the launch live on NASA TV.

After a nearly three-year hiatus, the Space Shuttle Program resumed, only to confront tragedy again in 2003 when the Columbia broke apart during re-entry, claiming the lives of another seven astronauts.

In recent years, as the space shuttle launches lead up to the 134th and final one later this year, public attention to the Space Shuttle Program has waned in a no-news-is-good-news kind of way.

Nevertheless, a space shuttle exhibit at the Museum of Flight – highlighted by an orbiter – would be a fitting legacy to showcase the successes and failures of this 30-year chapter in U.S. space exploration.

John Dodge: 360-754-544