Economy sours effort to house space shuttle in Palmdale

PALMDALE — Antelope Valley aerospace enthusiasts still hope a permanent retirement home for a space shuttle can be found in California's high desert, but one of them said today the sagging economy and high cost of bringing a shuttle to the area have put the effort on hold.

The leader of the Palmdale Shuttle Acquisition Team, Susan Miller, said her group has not given up on raising the $29 million it would take to buy a surplus space shuttle, remove its sensitive or dangerous parts and have NASA deliver it to Palmdale on the back of its special 747 jet.

"They were born here, and it is only fitting to bring one back here,'' said Miller, a retired NASA program director.

But the purchase price, plus the $20 million cost to retrofit a hanger for a retired shuttle in Palmdale, is a major problem, she said. The poor economy has ended active efforts to find corporate donors for the project.

"We're still hoping for a retirement home for the shuttle in the High Desert, and we had been actively pursuing that goal for more than a year, but that phase is over, and now we are entering what NASA would call a "planned hold,''' Miller said.

Interest in bringing a shuttle back to northern Los Angeles County is high, because NASA shuttles were assembled at a hanger at Plant 42, the Air Force's airport/industrial complex between Lancaster and Palmdale.

The shuttle Discovery is promised to a Smithsonian Institution hanger near Washington. Community leaders near Florida's Kennedy Space Center want one of the three remaining space shuttles to go on display there and officials in Texas hope to bring one of the shuttles to Houston.

Palmdale is also vying with the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base aviation museum and 19 other museums and science centers around the world for the remaining space shuttle. But Miller said the Palmdale Shuttle Acquisition Team has a backup plan if it can't get one of the space-travel veterans: the Enterprise.

That ship is a training shuttle that never went to space. It will be bumped from its parking space at the Smithsonian's museum near Dulles International Airport when Discovery goes there, and Miller said the task force is hoping for a discount from NASA to buy it.

Enterprise was the first shuttle, built in 1973 in Palmdale, and was intended to be used for aeronautical tests at first, and then was to be rebuilt into an actual space vehicle. As a test vehicle, it made worldwide headlines when it was towed up what was then 10th Street East — now Challenger Way — in 1977 to Edwards Air Force Base.

Lifted into the sky by the 747, it was the first shuttle to actually fly in the atmosphere, and also the first to be rolled onto the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in a test. But plans to add a launch engine and other space equipment to Enterprise were shelved when NASA changed the shuttle designs, and decided to build another ship from scratch.

"Enterprise did all of its flight work here in the Antelope Valley,'' Miller said. She is hoping that NASA, mindful of the space shuttle program's heritage in the deserts of California, will sell Enterprise at a price the local area can afford.

Shuttle enthusiasts in the Antelope Valley will have their annual commemoration of the shuttle fleet at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Joe Davies Heritage Airpark, on Avenue P at 20th Street East. If a threatened storm brings rain and wind, the commemoration will be moved to Aero Institute at the Palmdale Civic
Center, on Sierra Highway at Palmdale Boulevard, Miller said.