As the agency gets its space shuttles ready to be shipped out to museums, it will not be sending them off lock, stock and barrel. The crews doing the prep work have been flooded with requests to squirrel away parts of the spacecraft for analysis. Valves, flight-control instruments, even the tires and windows — little is safe from the clutches of NASA engineers.
“I’ve got a list of hundreds of items that have to come off the ship,” said Stephanie S. Stilson, who is directing the preparation of the shuttle Discovery for delivery to the Smithsonian Institution next year in what NASA calls its “transition and retirement” program.
In April, NASA named the permanent old-age homes for its shuttles, which have been escorting astronauts to space for 30 years. The Endeavour, which completed its last mission early Wednesday with a pinpoint landing after 16 days in orbit, will bask in glory only briefly before it is groomed for delivery to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The Atlantis, which will make its final flight next month, is destined to live at the visitors’ center here at the space center.
The Discovery made its last flight in March and now sits in a maintenance bay, enclosed by platforms that would normally be crawling with workers inspecting and maintaining its many systems — including the thousands of thermal tiles that cover its skin — to be ready for its next liftoff. These days, as the shuttle program winds down and the staff has been winnowed by layoffs, technicians work on the Discovery only when there are no more pressing tasks. And rather than sprucing it up for another trip to space, likely as not they are taking something out of it.