The real story about Dayton and NASA’s shuttle decision
By Tim Walker
Hello, NASA? This is Dayton. Do you copy?
We deserve a space shuttle. We have a place for it.
We’ve earned it, and we want it.
Of course, it’s been a familiar tale up to this point, and one with an all-too-common ending: Dayton, our beloved city, the birthplace of aviation itself, takes it on the chin again. Like the late Rodney Dangerfield, we simply get no respect at all. And, in addition to getting no respect, according to NASA, we’re not getting one of those space shuttles either. There were four available; the Smithsonian laid claim to one, as did the Kennedy Space Center, as well they should. But then the other two were awarded to … well, Los Angeles and New York City. Sorry, Dayton. Sorry, as a matter of fact, to every American citizen who lives more than a stone’s throw from a coast.
L.A.? New York? Does either city have even a tenuous connection to the space program; anything, indeed, more substantial than the fact that a shuttle may have once accidentally flown overhead? It’s enough to make Wilbur and Orville cry. However, now a Columbus businessman named John Cavanaugh, along with U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown and thousands of other concerned Ohioans, are doing all they can to force a closer look at NASA’s decision.
“I know Senator Brown has been behind this effort to change the mind of NASA,” said local author, photographer and aviation expert Dan Patterson. “I know that one of the Senators from Texas is also trying to change NASA’s mind to get Houston back in the game. I would say that, at this point, it’s probably a done deal.
“I worked on the project with the Air Force Museum Foundation,” he continued, “and I know what the demographics are: 65 percent of the United States population is within a comfortable driving or flying distance from Dayton, Ohio. That’s 65 percent of the U.S. population. New York’s on a coast, L.A.’s on a coast — half of their demographics are fish. You draw a 600-mile circle around Dayton and you have a lot of people. You draw the same circle around New York or Los Angeles, and half of the circle is nothing but water.
“The fact that an orbiter is not going to be anywhere in the heartland of this country, I think, is a giant mistake,” said Patterson.
History of the shuttle program
NASA and the United States’ space shuttle era formally began with the maiden voyage of Columbia on April 12, 1981 and ended 135 missions later on July 21, 2011 with Atlantis’ safe return to Earth. The space shuttle fleet, the mainstay of the U.S. human spaceflight program for more than a quarter century, included five orbiters which were constructed, maintained and flown during the life of the program: Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavor. A full-scale test vehicle, Enterprise, was also constructed and tested but was never intended to be flown into space, and it was presented to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in 1985.
Two of the orbiters, as we know, were destroyed in tragic accidents which also took the lives of the 14 heroic astronauts that, combined, made up their two crews: Challenger on January 28, 1986, and Columbia, 13 years later, on February 1, 2003.
In January 2004, President Bush announced the shuttle program would end after construction of the International Space Station was completed. NASA was therefore faced with a problem; they would be left with three orbiters that needed museum homes, preferably ones that would be able to display the orbiters to the largest amount of people. In 2008 and 2010, NASA published Requests for Information to “determine interest that may lead to selection of specific organizations to receive a space shuttle orbiter.” In response, the agency received expressions of interest from a total of 29 organizations.
Among the organizations craving an orbiter: the Adler Planetarium in Chicago; the Space Center in Houston; and the Museum of Flight in Seattle (which began constructing an $11 million building to house their shuttle before finding out if they were going to get one).
Also interested, and widely considered to be one of the leading candidates for a shuttle, was the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton.
Decision and uproar
NASA formed a team of civil servants comprised of individuals from various offices to review the proposals from all interested locations, and on April 12, the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle flight, NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden announced that the three remaining orbiters which had flown in space — Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor — would be placed, respectively, at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex in Florida, and the California Science Center in Los Angeles. In addition, he announced that New York City’s Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, housed at the decommissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid, would receive the Enterprise test vehicle, thus enabling the Smithsonian to make room for the Discovery orbiter.
And that, as they say, was that.
Mission Control? We have a problem.
Representatives from Dayton, Seattle and Houston, three cities that all felt they had legitimate claims to a shuttle of their own, expressed extreme displeasure with NASA’s decision. Politicians from the various shunned locales got involved, writing letters, making speeches and demanding an investigation.
And that was when Cavanaugh, a Columbus businessman, decided to get involved too.
“I really started back in July,” said Cavanaugh. “I was invited to be part of a program that the White House Office of Public Engagement started — it’s called the Community Leaders Program … the White House [was] trying to do different mechanisms of public engagement and part of it is actually bringing people to Washington to engage with their staff. After that they created this new petition mechanism that’s another way for outreach and to get input from the public.”
The “We the People” petition platform on www.whitehouse.gov was launched on September 22 and provides citizens with an opportunity to start petitions and build public support for a variety of issues. Originally, 5,000 signatures on a petition were enough to ensure that President Obama would look into and comment on an issue.
“When I returned home a few months later I noticed the continuing and brewing controversy of the shuttle issue,” continued Cavanaugh. “And it just stuck in my mind that this would be almost ideal and the perfect petition, because I had just noticed, right around the tail end of September, that New York City and the Intrepid Museum didn’t really even have a plan or a place to put the Enterprise, which they had been awarded back in April. And I just thought that here was a perfect opportunity for the president to correct a mistake by one of his federal agencies.”
The petition, which asks President Obama to revisit NASA’s decision and award the Enterprise to the U.S. Air Force Museum, now stands at 6,389 signatures and surpassed the 5,000 needed to ensure the President’s attention in October. Interestingly, although President Obama has commented on other petitions, he has remained silent on the space shuttle issue — an issue which, perhaps he needs to be reminded, is important to the residents of Ohio, a swing state which promises to be crucial in his 2012 bid for re-election.
Mistakes were made
U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown was demanding an investigation of NASA’s decision-making process even before the formal announcement was made that the US Air Force Museum would not be getting one of the orbiters. The day Bolden made NASA’s announcement, Brown, in conjunction with U.S. Representatives Mike Turner, Steve Austria, Marcy Kaptur and Steven LaTourette, had already demanded that the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) look into why the orbiters were being awarded as they were. The GAO is Congress’ independent watchdog.
“NASA ignored the intent of Congress, and the interests of taxpayers,” said Senator Brown. “NASA was directed to consider regional diversity when determining shuttle locations. Unfortunately, it looks like regional diversity amounts to which coast you are on, or which exit you use on I-95. Even more insulting to taxpayers is that having paid to build the shuttles, they will now be charged to see them at some sites.”
And that is just scratching the surface of the problem. It seems that, with every week that has passed since NASA’s decision, a different incidence of impropriety, error and outright deceit has come to light with regards to both the decision-making process, and the plans and actions of the Intrepid Museum. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General eventually launched their own formal investigation into the selection process, and released a report on August 25 which contained information that was especially troubling for Dayton residents; the revelation that there were scoring errors made by the NASA committee during the selection process — errors which, once corrected, moved Dayton into a numerical tie with both the Intrepid Museum in New York and the Kennedy Visitor’s Center in Florida.
Did we really lose an orbiter due to a mathematical error?
Charles Bolden says no — when advised of the scoring errors, he responded that he would have made the same decision to award the shuttles as he did regardless of the scores, because the locations he chose provided the opportunity for the shuttles to be seen by the greatest number of people.
But wait … there’s another twist.
In a move that Senator Brown referred to publicly as a “bait and switch,” the Intrepid Museum in New York, after being awarded the shuttle, changed their plans again (the original plan had changed several times) and decided to build a brand new museum to showcase their new acquisition.
Build it, that is, on land they don’t own and with $85 million that they don’t have.
So the Intrepid Museum, far from having all their ducks in row, went from a plan to put the Enterprise on the pier next to the carrier, to tucking it away in a hangar at JFK International Airport while they build the new structure to house it, to their current plan to place it on the deck of the carrier Intrepid under a temporary structure while they raise the money and secure permission to construct the new facility.
“If the Intrepid Museum’s plan was to build a new facility in an area of New York that it does not currently have permission to build on, that should have been made clear to NASA from the start,” said Brown.
“…New York City was, and still is, woefully unprepared to house the Enterprise Space Shuttle,” continued the senator. “This also raises further questions about the thoroughness of NASA’s selection process …”
Keep in mind that the Air Force Museum, which already has plans in place to construct a new hangar, would be able to house the Enterprise in one of its indoor facilities and put it on display to the public almost immediately. Admission to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is free and there is no charge for parking. It’s no surprise that the museum attracts over 1.3 million visitors per year, a number that would undoubtedly increase, and more likely nearly double, with the museum’s acquisition of an orbiter.
A visit to New York’s Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum currently costs $24 for adult admission. So the taxpayers who visit the Enterprise in New York will be paying at least $24 a head to see a shuttle prototype that they already paid for with their tax dollars. Admission to the Kennedy Visitors Center in Florida is a whopping $43 for an adult, and a difficult-to-swallow $33 for children aged 3-11. Admission to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, like admission to the Smithsonian, is free, thankfully (although there is a $10 parking fee).
And now, as if all of the previous isn’t enough to question NASA’s decision, the following story published in the December 5 edition of The New York Times: It seems that, right when Intrepid Museum officials are trying to persuade state officials to allow the construction of a building on a parking lot across the West Side Highway from the aircraft carrier, some of its trustees were caught pressing the board to contribute to Governor Cuomo’s re-election campaign by buying tickets to his birthday party — which, coincidentally, was held at the Intrepid Museum. Charitable organizations like the Intrepid Foundation generally steer clear of political activity because they’re afraid of losing their federal income tax exemption. The IRS says that political campaign contributions “clearly violate the prohibition against political activity.”
Of course, all the preceding might just be sour grapes — a list of complaints which have no bearing on the disposition of the orbiters, and which certainly won’t make any difference now that the transfer process has begun. Spilled milk, anyone?
Where do we stand now?
“Well, it’s sort of a bad news/good news situation at this point,” said Ron Kaplan, former director of the National Aviation Hall of Fame and who is involved in the effort to secure a shuttle for Ohio. “We still have not heard back from the White House as to their planned actions in response to the petition … At this point, it is going to the Intrepid, and the transfer of title ceremony is scheduled for December 11.”
And it was. NASA officials and New York elected officials marked the sh uttle’s transfer of ownership, which actually took place last month, during a ceremony held on December 11 onboard the aircraft carrier-turned-museum.
“Let there be no bones about it,” said Senator Charles Schumer. “The Intrepid now officially owns a space shuttle and that’s going to stay for a very long time to come.”
And there you have it. The sordid tale of how Ohio and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, through a combination of NASA mistakes, metropolitan provincialism and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, was robbed of their chance to house one of the four retired space shuttles.
But is it really a done deal? No. President Obama can always step in and order NASA to revisit the decision and award the shuttle to locations that are more deserving and more prepared.
And the citizens of the great state of Ohio, if they haven’t done so already, can sign the petition, contact their senators and representatives in Congress to make their displeasure known.
Get involved. Be loud. Make a difference.
And NASA? Fork it over.
To view and sign the petition, visit www.whitehouse.gov/petitions.
Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com.