By Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press
SEATTLE — A gigantic piece of space history is set to splash down at Seattle’s Museum of Flight on Saturday.
Although the Space Shuttle Trainer has never left the earth’s atmosphere, museum officials say Seattle has won the biggest prize in the competition to show and explain this period in NASA history, since visitors won’t just get to look at this space artifact, they’ll be able to climb aboard.
Seattle came in fifth place in the contest among 21 museums and space centers hoping to land one of the nation’s four space shuttles after the 30-year program ended last year.
Arriving this weekend at the museum in south Seattle is the nearly 29-foot-long, 19-foot-wide and 23-foot-tall crew cabin of the full-scale plywood mock-up that looks like a space shuttle without wings. The payload bay is scheduled to arrive in two pieces in July and August and a mock-up of the engine section is being assembled locally.
It will cost a total of $2 million to get the trainer to its new home in Seattle. Museum officials say that’s another advantage of the trainer over the real space shuttles, which cost as much as ten times as much to move, partly because they can’t be disassembled first.
By early October, visitors to the museum near Boeing Field should be able to walk aboard the shuttle trainer, which was used by every astronaut to ever fly aboard a space shuttle. They’ll be able to touch and smell the giant vehicle, imagine flying it themselves and maybe even impress their friends by holding their wedding aboard.
“In retrospect, I think we did get something better,” said museum president Doug King.
Visitors this weekend and through the months while the trainer is reassembled will be able to visit the gallery and see the work as it progresses.
“It’s the first time we’ve built a gallery in front of the public,” King said.
King was in New York when the Space Shuttle Enterprise went on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. He called it a beautiful artifact that no one can touch.
Space Shuttle Discovery has a new home at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum annex in northern Virginia. Atlantis is bound for Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and Endeavor is going to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
In Seattle, a new $12 million building, the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery, has been prepared for the display. The gallery also features a Soyuz spacecraft and the landing capsule that two-time space tourist Simonyi used to get back to earth after one of his visits to the International Space Station.
Educational displays planned for the gallery will focus on the past, present and future of spaceflight, including information about some commercial ventures like asteroid mining and space tourism.
The crew compartment of the trainer left Johnson Space Center in Houston last week and was loaded into an even larger airplane called the Super Guppy. Because of its size and the difficulty of flying something as heavy and unwieldy as a piece of the shuttle trainer, the Super Guppy has made several stops on its way to Seattle.
On Saturday, the unusual plane will fly low and slow over Lake Washington and Elliott Bay before landing at Boeing Field. Anyone who shows up at the museum for “shuttlefest” activities this weekend will also get to see the crew compartment moved over to the museum from the airport next door.
They may also get a peek inside the plane that looks more like a whale than a guppy and has a cargo compartment that is 25 feet tall, 25 feet wide and 111 feet long and can carry up to 26 tons. It’s the only plane in the world that is big enough to transport the crew compartment of the Space Shuttle Trainer, King said.
A weekend of special activities have been planned at the museum, where visitors also can see Boeing’s first manufacturing facility, the first jet Air Force One, a Concorde jetliner and about 150 other historical aircraft. Astronaut Greg Johnson, who grew up in Seattle, will talk about flying the unusual plane from Houston. Other astronauts with local ties will talk about their training in the space shuttle mock-up.
King said he’s not just excited for the people of Washington state. “It’s an historic moment for the whole NASA program,” he said, noting the support the museum has gotten from NASA and the emotional connection to the trainer he’s heard about from past and current astronauts who wanted to be part of the celebration.
If you go
The Super Guppy is expected to arrive around 11 a.m. Saturday in the parking lot behind the Museum of Flight, so most parking over the weekend will be offsite but marked. Museum general admission, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, $17 adults, $14 seniors and active military, $9 ages 5 to 17, children 4 and under free. Events in the east parking lot over the weekend will be free. For more information, go to www.museumofflight.org.