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Space shuttle snub sends Houston into orbit

Officials are vowing to 'fight like Texans' to persuade NASA to reverse course and locate one of the retiring orbiters in Space City. They are especially furious that New York City is getting one, and some say politics played a role.

April 15, 2011|By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times
  • Houston resident Diane Breener reacts to NASA's announcement this week that four other cities had been chosen to house space shuttles.
Houston resident Diane Breener reacts to NASA's announcement this… (Kevin M. Cox, Galveston…)

Reporting from Washington — Houston, you have a problem.

The home of NASA mission control, the self-described Space City, is reeling over losing out in a fierce nationwide competition to win one of four space shuttles as the program nears its end. Houston is especially galled that New York gets one of the orbiters to display in Manhattan.

"When the United States won the race to the moon in 1969, the first word on the moon was, 'Houston,' not 'New York City!' " Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) railed on the House floor after the decision was announced Tuesday.

It's akin to "Detroit without a Model T, Florence without a Da Vinci," lamented another Texas congressman, Republican John Culberson. The Houston Chronicle headline blasted "One Giant Snub for Houston."

The NASA announcement was so important in Houston — akin to a city vying to host an Olympic Games — that the Kennedy Space Center news conference was broadcast live by local news stations. At first word that shuttles were headed to California, Florida, New York and Washington, D.C., some Houston folks burst into tears.

But now, there is anger. Officials are vowing to "fight like Texans" to reverse the decision. The Texas congressional delegation promises to make NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's next appearance on Capitol Hill a memorable one. A number of Republicans pointed out that California and New York happen to be solidly Democratic states.

On Thursday, a Utah Republican, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, introduced a bill that would strip New York of its shuttle and give one to Houston.

"This isn't over," Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) said. "The smell of politics permeates this decision."

NASA has denied that politics was a factor in its decision. Sites were selected, a NASA official said, "based on the best value to the American public, including education and outreach as well as domestic and international access."

Texans can't quite understand how Houston, whose ties to the space program extend even to the names of its sports teams, the Astros and Rockets, lost to New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

They don't appear to be so angry about the space shuttle Endeavour going to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. After all, the orbiters were assembled in Palmdale and frequently landed at Edwards Air Force Base. And display of the Discovery in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington and Atlantis at Florida's Kennedy Space Center are all but inarguable.

"What I have a problem with is I don't understand why Houston didn't get one," said Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas).

Houston was selected as the site of the manned space center in 1961. Houston is where astronauts train. The shuttle is like a beloved daughter, and Houston simply can't rationalize losing her.

"With every shuttle mission since inception in 1981, it is Houston personnel at the helm, from when the vehicle clears the tower, until wheel-stop upon landing," stated the Houston application, submitted by Space City Houston, which operates the visitor center for Johnson Space Center. "Space is part of the very fabric of the Lone Star State."

Still fuming Thursday, Poe said putting a shuttle in Manhattan is "like putting the Statue of Liberty in Omaha."

Technically, New York is not getting a real space shuttle. The Enterprise is a test orbiter that never flew into space.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), whose district includes the Intrepid museum, isn't making any apologies for the win.

"New York City is the greatest city in the world, and locating the space shuttle in New York will allow 45 million annual visitors and 15 million area residents to experience the awesome power of the American space program up close and personal," he said. Not to mention that the museum, as "an actual decommissioned aircraft carrier, already welcomes close to 1 million visitors annually," Nadler said.

Ironically, for all the charges that politics played a role in the selection, half a century ago Houston was chosen as the site of the manned space center because one of their congressmen, Albert Thomas, chaired the appropriations subcommittee that controlled NASA's budget, said John M. Logsdon, a George Washington University professor emeritus who has written about space history.

Ohio's congressional delegation also is upset that the home of the Wright brothers was passed over, and it has joined Texas in calls for an investigation of the NASA selection process.

Houston had waged a two-year campaign to land an orbiter, including gathering more than 90,000 letters of support. Families of astronauts killed in the Challenger and Columbia disasters also met with Bolden to urge him to select Houston. During the competition, Texas lawmakers signed a letter saying that denying Houston a shuttle would "forever diminish the service" rendered by the city in the space program and "create a blemish on its significance to the legacy of NASA."

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