Congress, NASA

Report clears NASA shuttle selection process, but doesn’t make Dayton or Houston any happier

One of the more controversial decisions that NASA has made in the last six months has had nothing to do with the Space Launch System, Commercial Crew Development, or James Webb Space Telescope programs. Instead, it was the agency’s decision, announced April 12, on where the shuttle orbiters will be displayed upon retirement. The decision in particular to transfer the orbiter Enterprise to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City and put Endeavour on display in Los Angeles was met with strong criticism, even anger, in Dayton, Ohio, and Houston, where many thought they were victims of a politically-motivated decision that ignored the merits of putting shuttles on display in those cities.

Yesterday, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report of its investigation of the decisionmaking process, finding no evidence of political influence from the White House or elsewhere on the selection decision. “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 the Administrator’s ultimate decision on where to place the Orbiters,” the report’s summary states. “Moreover, we found no attempt by White House officials to direct or influence Bolden’s decision making.”

The report did find an error with the selection process: a “cut and paste” error in compiling scores used to judge the various proposals that caused the National Museum of the Air Force to lose five points in the final summary of scores. That extra five points would have put the Dayton museum into a tie with the Intrepid and Kennedy Space Center. However, Bolden told OIG officials that even if that error had not been made, he would have still made the same selection decision. The reason: the day before the announcement NASA contacted various facilities to confirm their interest in receiving an orbiter, and found out that the Air Force Museum “did not believe they would be able to secure the $28.8 million necessary to pay NASA for a flown Orbiter.”

This report, while clearing NASA of any political meddling in its decisionmaking process, did little to assuage those denied an orbiter. An AP article about the decision with the headline “Report: NASA made right picks for retired shuttles” was retitled by a Houston TV station as “Bolden Overrode Retired Shuttles Decision”. That was based on a passage in the report where, in 2009, Bolden rejected a recommendation by a NASA team to award orbiters only to NASA facilities (KSC, Houston, and the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville), saying that he preferred that “the Agency choose locations where the Orbiters would be seen by the largest number of visitors and thus serve NASA’s goal of expanding outreach and education efforts to spur interest in science, technology, and space exploration.”

Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), whose district includes JSC, remained critical of the selection process in a statement yesterday. “It is patently evident from this IG report that Administrator Bolden sought and implemented a plan that would deliberately exclude ties to the shuttle program program [sic] and therefore remove Houston from the equation,” he said, saying the agency was “focusing on access to international visitors over Americans whose tax dollars paid for every single shuttle.” While Houston did score poorly on international visitors, the proposal also suffered from low attendance as well as facility availability and transportation risk factors.

Ohio wasn’t any happier with the report. “NASA may have followed the law when awarding the shuttles, but it is still guilty of incredibly bad judgment,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in a statement, while taking credit for working to ensure the Dayton museum would be in the running for an orbiter. Both Brown and Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH) were, like Rep. Olson, critical of the international visitors factor in the ranking, as Dayton also scored poorly on that factor. “They are now putting a stronger emphasis on international tourism over American families and that is wrong,” Austria said in a statement. “Unfortunately, NASA has decided to take our national treasures and make them tourist attractions in large cities, rather than preserving the flight of the shuttles by placing one of them right here in the birthplace of aviation.”

One interesting aspect of the report is that while the report indicated there was no political influence on the selection process, there was political influence on the selection announcement. NASA had been prepared to announce the selected sites back in July, 2010, but when agency officials contacted the White House to inform the administration of their plans, “the White House asked Bolden to consider delaying the announcement out of concern that a negative reaction from key members of Congress might interfere with ongoing negotiations over NASA’s budget and authorization bills,” the report states. NASA officials concluded that the summer of 2010 “was not the right time for NASA to announce the Orbiter placement decision”; in particular, Rep. Bart Gordon, then-chairman of the House Science Committee, was concerned it would upset negotiations on the NASA authorization act then under consideration, and even cause Congress to take the decision out of the agency’s hands. That led NASA to wait until after the authorization bill was passed and, then, scheduling the decision on the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle launch.

31 comments to Report clears NASA shuttle selection process, but doesn’t make Dayton or Houston any happier

  • amightywind

    I am sure the peasants squabbled over the ruins of Rome the same way when the Visigoths left. Where will the shuttle’s end up? Who cares? Where is the SLS program? When is the first flight? America needs to reform its NASA legions.

  • tom

    After the Visigoths left, Rome continued for 900 more years. Orbiters are like Battleships and Aircraft Carriers. People develop a special attachment to them. 2 of the 3 orbiters will not move before then end of 2012 or early 2013. Look for one location to change. But you’re right, everyone push forward, time to stop looking backwards. What and when can we launch next!

  • Michael from Iowa

    “When is the first flight?”
    Optimistically – sometime in the 2020s I’d imagine.

  • Das Boese

    amightywind wrote @ August 26th, 2011 at 8:27 am

    I am sure the peasants squabbled over the ruins of Rome the same way when the Visigoths left.

    Such a peculiar choice for an analogy, but oddly fitting!
    The sacking of Rome was the result of constant internal political fighting in Rome, as well as the failure to recognize the importance of the new political power and properly integrate them into the Empire.

    Where is the SLS program? When is the first flight?

    Where’s the money for the SLS program? What will it lift?

    America needs to reform its NASA legions.

    Again, what an uncannily fitting metaphor, seeing as a large number of the barbarian invaders were former Roman soldiers, enraged because they were cheated out of wages and recognition for political games.

  • Das Boese

    Also, please disregard my fubared grammar, it comes with the sleep deprivation ;P

  • Ben Russell-Gough

    Fact: No-one likes facts that don’t conform with their prejudices. So, it doesn’t matter what any report says; those who feel cheated will still feel cheated.

    And that’s a face. ;)

  • Ben Russell-Gough

    Oops! I meant “And that’s a fact”

    Nice way to ruin the post – fluff the punchline! A thousand apologies to you all! :P

  • …Rep. Bart Gordon, then-chairman of the House Science Committee, was concerned it would upset negotiations on the NASA authorization act then under consideration, and even cause Congress to take the decision out of the agency’s hands.

    Yeah, like that worked out real well.

  • Mark Whittington

    Jeff is leaving out the fact that a NASA panel recommended that Houston get the Atlantis in 2009. Bolden then changed the criteria of the selection process so that Houston would be out of the running. That is especially troublesome to Texas lawmakers. Even if there was no political hanky panky (and I am not convinced that is the case) the decision was bone headed politically. There will likely now be a congressional investigation and everything that implies.

  • common sense

    @ Mark Whittington wrote @ August 26th, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Oh great. Let’s waste our scarce resources for locating a relic. I am glad that the GOP will get ejected at the next election if you are any representation of the current GOP. If only we could eject them all and replace them with people who are concerned with the good of this country…

  • Coastal Ron

    Mark Whittington wrote @ August 26th, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Bolden then changed the criteria of the selection process so that Houston would be out of the running.

    No, he made sure that the selection process emphasized people actually getting to view the Shuttles, no matter where they were. That Houston is not a big tourist draw is their fault, not the American people.

    Location, location, location. KSC, D.C., L.A. and N.Y. all had better location.

  • amightywind

    Location, location, location. KSC, D.C., L.A. and N.Y. all had better location.

    NY and DC are a short high speed rail ride apart. Houston is the 4th largest metro area in the country. Lets face it. A shuttle sits mouldering in the aerospace backwater of New York because of a payback from Obama, mmm, mmm, mmm.

  • common sense

    @ amightywind wrote @ August 26th, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    “Houston is the 4th largest metro area in the country.”

    Have you ever been to Houston? Clear Lake? The only tourist attraction comes from Galveston and nearby Louisiana. There is no like in zero tourist destination in Houston. Houston is so widespread that if you go to Galveston you have to make an effort to go to Houston itself even if Clear Lake is slightly closer. Those who go to the Space Center are those people very interested in Space, a minority, or locals.

    There is no tourist business in Houston, never will.

  • Coastal Ron

    amightywind wrote @ August 26th, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    NY and DC are…” 250 miles apart. The vast majority of vacationers won’t consider that a day trip.

    Houston is the 4th largest metro area in the country.

    But Houston is only the 8th most visited destination.

    http://www.forbes.com/2010/04/28/tourism-new-york-lifestyle-travel-las-vegas-cities_slide_4.html

    New York is #2, behind #1 Orlando (i.e. close to KSC), and L.A. is just 25 miles from the #4 Anaheim (Disneyland), which is also where all the orbiters were built.

    Your arguments, like Space Center Houston’s, are unconvincing.

  • Das Boese

    amightywind wrote @ August 26th, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    NY and DC are a short high speed rail ride apart. Houston is the 4th largest metro area in the country. Lets face it. A shuttle sits mouldering in the aerospace backwater of New York because of a payback from Obama, mmm, mmm, mmm.

    Yeah, why would a sane person put an orbiter in New York, the third most popular tourism destination in the world.

  • Your arguments, like Space Center Houston’s, are unconvincing.

    As they are on all subjects.

  • vulture4

    “A shuttle sits mouldering in the aerospace backwater of New York because of a payback from Obama, mmm, mmm, mmm.”

    The Shuttles don’t belong in museums at all, they belong in space, or on the ground preparing for space. That’s where they should have been until a new generation of shuttles was in service. They are gathering dust in museums because Bush decided to eliminate all work on reusable launch systems and sustainable human spaceflight.

  • Egad

    > Also, please disregard my fubared grammar, it comes with the sleep deprivation ;P

    Don’t worry about it. Your English is better than many other posters’.

  • Egad

    > Those who go to the Space Center are those people very interested in Space, a minority, or locals.

    We to the Space Center a couple of weeks ago (because we’re in that minority) and I was very impressed by the numbers and diversity of people there, not to say scads of kids. The group sitting on the tour trolley in front of us included a prototypical Dalai Lama look-alike Buddhist monk, complete with saffron robes, stubble haircut, glasses and a video camera. Lots of different languages being spoken. The group at the Saturn V display included a 60ish guy speaking Russian who seemed to know what he was looking at.

  • common sense

    @ Egad wrote @ August 26th, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    “We to the Space Center a couple of weeks ago (because we’re in that minority) and I was very impressed by the numbers and diversity of people there, not to say scads of kids. The group sitting on the tour trolley in front of us included a prototypical Dalai Lama look-alike Buddhist monk, complete with saffron robes, stubble haircut, glasses and a video camera. Lots of different languages being spoken. The group at the Saturn V display included a 60ish guy speaking Russian who seemed to know what he was looking at.”

    I am not sure about your point here.

    I did not say nobody goes to Houston or the Space Center (in Clear Lake btw). I said Houston has no tourist attraction of its own. I said that a minority of tourists goes to the Space Center. Even if it is full of people how do you think the Space Center compares to any street (yes street) in NYC? The point is that more people go to NYC than to Houston and that is a fact.

  • Jeff Foust

    Jeff is leaving out the fact that a NASA panel recommended that Houston get the Atlantis in 2009.

    Actually, if Mr. Whittington re-reads my post, he’ll find the following in the fourth paragraph:

    Bolden rejected a recommendation by a NASA team to award orbiters only to NASA facilities (KSC, Houston, and the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville), saying that he preferred that “the Agency choose locations where the Orbiters would be seen by the largest number of visitors and thus serve NASA’s goal of expanding outreach and education efforts to spur interest in science, technology, and space exploration.”

    Bolden then changed the criteria of the selection process so that Houston would be out of the running.

    While the change in criteria put Houston at a disadvantage, there is nothing in the OIG report to indicate that Bolden changed the criteria specifically to disadvantage Houston.

  • DCSCA

    This is hilarious. Houston is still whinning over lawn ornaments for JSC. Still looking backwards.

    People aren’t going to travel to Houston to see a used space shuttle. Point is to display them at places already major tourist destinations already- and LA, NYC, Washington’s Smithsonian and the Florida space center, with Disneyworld and KSC close by, make perfect sense. Houston does not. In a few years, NYC and LA are going to discover that the costs of maintaining these artifacts are going to become a fiscal burden.

    Consider the problems Long Beach had with the Spruce Goose. Even after the dome was built around it and the Oueen Mary was near by w/a tourist village set up, interest was minimal. They finally unloaded it and saved a lot of $$ and lease the empty dome for moviemaking. And consider the fate of Freedom 7. In the Smithsonian collection for decades, in the late 70s it was on display in an upper attrium of the NASM, overshadowed bt Glenn’s Friendship 7 down in the main lobby. Then it was eventually stuck into storage, out of view, and ended up at the Naval Academy with Shepard relics on display after his passing. Even Apollo 13′s CM was stuck off in a corner at KSC in the 70s…. then shipped to France for years, then after the film was a hit, brought back home.

    The History Channel ran a show several years ago noting that the lawn ornaments at JSC/Houston- the Saturn V and such, were literally disintegrating w/o funding for maintenence. Houston may realize that in the long run, it’s probably better off financially w/o a large, antique orbiter to have to budget for, maintain and fuss over. JSC/Houston best look to the future, not its past.

  • Just curious if anyone has authoritative numbers on average annual attendance at these locations.

    Searching online, I find numbers estimating Space Center Houston attracts about 750,000 guests per year. I know KSCVC attracts about 1.5 million per year.

    I suspect that, outside of a few cranks in Houston and Dayton, no one really cares about this. And that continues to be the main problem with space advocacy, an arrogance among some supporters that we’re at the center of the universe when in fact most people couldn’t care less.

  • Martijn Meijering

    That’s where they should have been until a new generation of shuttles was in service.

    And that didn’t happen, not because the Shuttles were retired early (they were retired 25 years late), but because replacements didn’t arrive in time. And why didn’t the replacements arrive in time? Because the Shuttles got in the way. They weren’t part of the solution, they were the major part of the problem. Good riddance to them.

  • common sense

    http://www.intrepidmuseum.org/About-Us/About-The-Museum.aspx

    “Since 1982, the Intrepid has become a national icon. More than 915,000 people visit each year.”

    And that is Intrepid only in NYC.

    http://www.nycgo.com/articles/nyc-statistics-page

    “Tourism
    Total Visitors to NYC 2000-2010* Visitors (international and domestic) to New York City in 2010: 48.8 million”

    “Visitors (international and domestic) to New York City in 2006:
    43.8 million”

    “http://www.collinsmalone.com/website/printing/print_page.asp?domain=collinsmalone.com&rid=3280&pg=HoustonTourismandConvention”

    “Houston Tourism
    More than 34.4 million people visited the greater Houston area in 2006.”

    “60 percent of all domestic travelers to Houston are from Texas.”

  • DCSCA

    @common sense wrote @ August 27th, 2011 at 11:41 am

    “60 percent of all domestic travelers to Houston are from Texas.”

    Coal to Newcastle. Bolden made the correct choices.

  • common sense quoted:

    “60 percent of all domestic travelers to Houston are from Texas.”

    Reading the comments posted to the Houston newspaper report, apparently some of these yahoos believe only Americans should be allowed to view the orbiters because American taxpayers funded them.

    This is another reason why the orbiters belong anywhere else but Houston.

  • Halfwit

    NASA should sell one orbiter to the Germans. They will put it beside the Soviet Buran. The two orbiters will look great together, sort of like a Worker and Peasant monument.

  • Lt Col Rob Hecht

    Nat’l Museum of the USAF averages OVER a million visitors a year and continues to grow and develop as one of the premier aviation museums in the world…better exhibits and WAY MORE aviation history offered there than the USS Intrepid. I still believe and will always say Enterprise would have been best displayed next to all of her predecessors in aeropsace research at the Nat’l Museum USAF.

    Sincerely,
    Lt Col Rob Hecht, USAF

  • Coastal Ron

    Lt Col Rob Hecht wrote @ August 30th, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Nat’l Museum of the USAF averages OVER a million visitors a year and continues to grow and develop as one of the premier aviation museums in the world

    I look forward to making it there someday.

    Out of curiosity, do you know what the demographic breakdown is on it’s visitors? For instance, how many are local or from Ohio versus from out of state (and which states)?

  • Lt Col Rob Hecht

    Coastal Ron wrote @ August 30th, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I look forward to making it there someday.

    Out of curiosity, do you know what the demographic breakdown is on it’s visitors? For instance, how many are local or from Ohio versus from out of state (and which states)?

    Ron, I’m certain many visitors are from the local area (boy/girl scout groups and school groups) as well as those from a short drive away, but some of the big events draw crowds from a significant distance away. When I volunteered there (1994-97) I met many that flew in (some from overseas) or drove quite a ways to get there. I hope you get there soon and I’m certain you’ll agree that it is a great museum…and certainly worthy of showcasing Enterprise or even an orbiter.

    Sincerely,
    Rob

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