Free Shuttle Artifacts!

The four orbiters are already taken, but thousands more shuttle-related items are still available—at no cost.

NASA astronaut Rex Walheim walks past the Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT) as the crew of STS-135 trains in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) at the Johnson Space Center on Wednesday, June 29, 2011, in Houston. The training marked the crew's final scheduled session in JSC Building 9, or SVMF. ( NASA Photo / Houston Chronicle, Smiley N. Pool ) (NASA Photo / Houston Chronicle,)

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It won’t be cheap to move the Seattle Museum of Flight’s new attraction, either. The Full Fuselage Trainer, or FFT, is as big as a shuttle orbiter and looks identical, aside from having no wings. It weighs 90,000 lbs, but unlike an orbiter, it comes apart.

That’s a huge advantage in exhibiting the trainer for museum-goers, says Curator and Director of Collections Dan Hagedorn. “Unlike the actual orbiters, we’re going to be able to afford access, at least limited access, to the Full Fuselage Trainer,” he says. The Museum of Flight plans to separate the forward crew compartment from the rest of the fuselage, installing a transparent barrier so that visitors can see inside the cockpit, which is identical to the cockpits in the flown shuttle vehicles. The museum also is considering turning the trainer’s cargo bay into a small theater for screening interpretive media, and installing a starry panorama in the museum’s ceiling so that the view through the open cargo bay doors looks and feels like the view spacewalking astronauts would have seen.

The FFT was a crucial element of the shuttle program. Every single shuttle astronaut trained in it, and because it is mostly identical to the orbiters, it was often used to solve sudden in-flight engineering problems from the ground.

Hagedorn, too, was hoping for a flown orbiter. The Museum of Flight had even gone so far as to construct a $12 million, climate-controlled building made especially for housing a space shuttle, in the hope of being awarded one of the four vehicles. But Hagedorn now believes the FFT is a bigger, better catch for his visitors.

“Although they are truly awe-inspiring objects, [the orbiters] sit there in their serene virginity and don’t do anything,” he says. “Whereas [with] the full fuselage trainer, we’re actually going to be able to show people how this thing worked. And we’re very excited about that.”

Brigitte Gruener, a science teacher at Mohawk Elementary in Macomb Township, Michigan, sent away for one of the 4,000 shuttle tiles NASA has allocated so far. When she presented it to her students and asked them what they thought it was, she got answers ranging from a piece of Styrofoam to a piece of glass. Then one student said, “that looks like a piece of the space shuttle.” And so it is.

Gruener had her students break into groups and begin researching their little piece of shuttle history (which is numbered) to find out where on the orbiter it may have come from. So far, they think it was from somewhere under one of the cockpit windows.

“It is inspiring to have this very real part of the space program as a part of our science program,” says Gruener. “Every time I hold it I am amazed how far the space program has evolved.”

All the institutions receiving shuttle artifacts relish the opportunity to teach their visitors and students about human spaceflight while helping to preserve its history. Hagedorn and the Museum of Flight have plans to share their high-quality interpretive material with the museums that received actual orbiters (lest they become giant paperweights), and Bailey’s Evergreen will use its artifacts to help explain the science of spaceflight, including, yes, how astronauts go to the bathroom.

NASA has shut down space programs before, says Phillips, but this time the agency may be paying more attention to ensuring that the smaller artifacts find a home. “I think the difference is that in the past, with the rush to the moon, they were in such a hurry, and [NASA had] this concept that spaceflight would be around forever,” he says. “Now I think they’re a little more concerned about the legacy they’re leaving.”

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