Currently up for grabs on a government website: a pair of astronaut pants, a spacewalker’s life-support backpack, a spacesuit glove, and thousands of black insulating tiles from the bellies of the space shuttle orbiters.
Now that the shuttle has retired after 30 years, NASA is having the equivalent of a massive going-out-of-business sale.
While most of the media attention last spring focused on where the vehicles themselves would go on display (Washington, Los Angeles, Florida's Kennedy Space Center and New York) thousands of lesser pieces of shuttle history are still looking for permanent homes. With help from the General Services Administration, NASA is giving away everything from spare main engines to sunglasses worn by the astronauts. The artifacts will go to museums, universities, elementary schools, libraries and planetariums all over the country to become part of their permanent collections. The GSA has a website for screening artifacts, so that institutions can view and apply to receive specific pieces.
In fact, the nuts and bolts of the shuttle program have been steadily trickling away from NASA since 2009. The artifacts are offered in batches as they are decommissioned, screened and, if necessary, disassembled. Of the roughly 24,000 artifacts posted on the website, more than 3,000 have been given away so far.
Jerry Phillips was hired by NASA’s logistics department to manage the process of allocating artifacts. Part of the job, he says, is to determine which of the millions of objects associated with the shuttle program should be considered artifacts worthy of offering to educational institutions.
Like many museum curators around the country, Stewart Bailey of the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, originally was hoping for one of the four orbiters. But he finds that the smaller shuttle relics Evergreen managed to acquire can be just as fascinating to his museum’s visitors. One of his favorite items is a flown roll of duct tape. It looks just like a regular roll of duct tape, except it’s been to space.
“It’s one of those objects that you can say, instantaneously, I know what that is, and it’s like, wow, the astronauts use it too,” says Bailey. “It ties into what people see and do in their everyday life.”
The competition for some shuttle artifacts is stiff, with several institutions often vying for a particularly prized item. Bailey says that NASA is giving special consideration to museums with local ties to a given artifact, including whether it was manufactured in that area.
Texas A&M’s Aerospace Engineering department was awarded the Johnson Space Center’s Shuttle Mission Simulator (SMS), partly because several of their alumni had worked with the realistic motion-based trainer used by shuttle astronauts. According to John Valasek, a professor in the department, the simulator will be reassembled and restored to full operational use as both a research and educational tool for the university. "We are committed to preserving and maintaining the SMS in exactly the form it was used for astronaut training,” he says. As of now, the simulator is the only working piece of shuttle program equipment that will remain in Texas.
NASA offers the shuttle artifacts free of charge, but the recipients have to cover the cost of moving them to their new homes. That could add up to a mere $23.40 to ship one insulating tile, or $4 million to disassemble, transport and reassemble Texas A&M’s SMS simulator.