Space shuttle Discovery is ready to fly its final flight this week, but where it will make its last landing is still up in the air.
Long thought destined for the Smithsonian, NASA's oldest flying orbiter may actually end up elsewhere unless the Washington, D.C. institution can find the millions of dollars needed to prepare Discovery for delivery and display, collectSPACE.com has learned.
The first of NASA's three remaining space shuttles set to retire after flying its last mission STS-133, scheduled to launch Nov. 3 at 3:52 p.m. EDT (1952 GMT) Discovery has been identified by NASA since 2008 as being set aside for the Smithsonian.
"The National Air and Space Museum has been offered the space shuttle Discovery," NASA spokesman Michael Curie told collectSPACE.com almost two years ago when the agency first announced it would award its three orbiters Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour to museums.
Like the 20 other organizations that applied to NASA for a retired orbiter though, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum would need to pay the then-estimated $42 million to prepare and transport Discovery to the museum, Curie said.
The cost, which was lowered to $28.8 million in January of this year, is still beyond the Smithsonian's reach and NASA is not in the position to underwrite the cost, sources close to both the institution and space agency told collectSPACE.com.
'Process put on hold'
"At this point, we're not in a position to go down the 'what if' road," said Robert Jacobs, NASA's deputy associate administrator for communications.
"There have been discussions between NASA and the Smithsonian about the issue," Jacobs said, "but I am not sure they are on-going at this point because the process has been put on hold."
According to Jacobs, NASA administrator Charles Bolden will ultimately make the final decision, but he has tabled all discussion of where Discovery or any of the orbiters are going for museum display.
"We've had a lot of other things on the agency's plate besides where the orbiters are going to go," said Jacobs. "The agency is focused on safely flying out the manifest."
Originally, NASA had said it would announce the homes for the shuttles by the end of the summer, but schedule changes including the delay of Endeavour's final flight to February and the possible addition of another flight for Atlantis in June 2011 resulted in the agency delaying the news.
"They were pushing toward a decision, and [then] decided not to," said Jacobs.
The postponement has led to increased speculation inside and outside of NASA. According to sources internal to the agency, whether Discovery still goes to the Smithsonian changes on a week-by-week, if not day-by-day basis.