On Tuesday, NASA chief Charles Bolden announced that he had selected the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum as the future home for the Enterprise space shuttle, making New York City one of the lucky recipients of four space shuttles being retired and donated to museums around the country.
The Enterprise is a prototype shuttle that was built in 1976. It never went into space orbit, but was used for flight tests within the Earth’s atmosphere.
The three other shuttles will land at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum outside Washington, the California Science Center in Los Angeles, and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Over the past year, more than 20 cities around the country have been lobbying NASA to receive one of the shuttles up for grabs. Applications were submitted, local politicians gathered thousands of signatures, and one museum in Seattle even built the first wall of a proposed $12 million complex meant to house the shuttle it didn’t get.
In the end, it may have been about the power of numbers.
“As the cultural and economic capital of our nation, New York City has the right stuff to create a world class exhibit attracting millions of visitors and school children,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
The Intrepid Museum commissioned a feasibility study last year that estimated that the shuttle would likely bring in an additional one million visitors to the museum each year.
At the museum on Tuesday, employees cheered and clinked champagne flutes to celebrate the news.
“It’s probably one of the most exciting days we’ve had,” said Intrepid Museum President Susan Marenoff-Zausner.
The Enterprise was the first space shuttle ever built. After NASA finished testing it, the shuttle was moved to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington in 1985, where it still sits today.
The Enterprise will soon be moved to New York—to its new home at the end of the main pier at the Intrepid Museum. The Discovery, which is one of three shuttles that went into orbit, will take the Enterprise's old spot at the Smithsonian.
Marenoff-Zausner at the Intrepid said she didn't mind that the Enterprise hadn't actually gone into space.
“There is not an ounce of disappointment,” she said. “There is just complete enthusiasm that we are the ones who received the Enterprise, which was the test for all the others. Without the Enterprise, none of the others would have been able to accomplish their missions.”
The shuttles are being donated to their new homes for free, but some of the museums will have to pay for the massive costs of preparing and transporting them, which is estimated to cost up to $42 million per shuttle.
Since the Enterprise is on display at the Smithsonian, it may cost significantly less to move than the others, according to Marenoff-Zausner. The museum said it planned to raise the funds through private donations and foundation support.
For many New Yorkers, that's money well spent.
“For all I know, my great-grandkids will be living on Mars,” said Paul Gregonis, a volunteer at the Intrepid. “But this was the start of the whole exploration of space. They’re looking at a modern-day Christopher Columbus right there at the end of the pier.”
The Enterprise is likely to make its appearance at the Intrepid sometime next year.