This helmet was used with an early shuttle escape system. It provided oxygen to the crew member in the event of a bailout.
This helmet was used with an early shuttle escape system. It provided oxygen to the crew member in the event of a bailout. NASA
If you've ever had to clean out the attic or the basement of a house you've lived in for a long time, you know how vast amounts of stuff can accumulate over the years. So you can imagine NASA's predicament — the agency is just months away from ending its nearly 30-year-old space shuttle program and is now having to sort through all of its old equipment to make sure every potential piece of history finds the right home.
"I was really surprised that everyone had a different opinion of what was a valuable artifact and what wasn't," says Joel Kearns, transition manager for space operations at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
For example, Kearns is an engineer and personally likes old computers. "So whenever I would see these on the list, I would look at that and say, 'Oh, some museum is really going to want that; that looks like an artifact,' " he explains. "Well, many other people looked at that and said, 'That is the most boring-looking black box, I would never want anything like that in my local museum.' " They were more impressed with other items that Kearns initially wasn't interested in, such as windows for the space shuttles — because a museum could use those windows to make a shuttle cockpit display.
A Precious Artifact May Be In The Eye Of The Beholder
Space Underwear: This liquid cooling ventilation garment was worn by astronauts beneath their spacesuits for comfort and temperature regulation.
NASA's evaluation process started about four years ago, when it became clear that the shuttle program would be ending in 2010. "The whole space shuttle program has about over a million line items of personal property that they have on their books," says Kearns. "That ranges from nuts and bolts and little pieces of computer parts all the way up to the space shuttle orbiters themselves."
NASA has three shuttles: Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. They'll be retired later this year, after five more missions. Space shuttle Discovery has already been promised to the Smithsonian. So far, about 20 other organizations have put in requests for a shuttle. NASA should announce the lucky winners of Endeavour and Atlantis this spring. The shuttle itself will be free, but whoever gets one will be expected to cough up about $29 million to prepare and transport it.
Meanwhile, NASA is putting other shuttle goodies up on a Web site so that educational institutions like museums, science centers, and universities can browse through them. Artifacts are organized by category, such as clothing or shuttle parts.
Many items have photos, and users can click on an item to learn about its history, such as whether it's ever flown in space. Requesting the object is as simple as putting it in a "shopping cart" and then going through a checkout procedure, says Jerry Phillips, who works on the Web site for NASA. He compares browsing through the shuttle relics to "an eBay shopping experience."
Deciding Who Gets What
Unlike shopping at an online store, however, submitting a request does not guarantee getting an item. A special committee decides where each item will go. "Our objective is to be fair and impartial on all the placements of the artifacts," says Susan Kinney, director of logistics at NASA headquarters.
She says generally, the NASA's visitors centers and the Smithsonian get first dibs. The committee will evaluate each request and consider things like how many other objects an institution or region has already requested, and how the institution plans to maximize the educational benefit of the object.
About 900 items went up on the shuttle artifact Web site last October, and every single one had a taker. The agency has just posted about an additional 2,500 objects.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says Valerie Neal, a curator with the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. "A program of this significance ends once a generation."
Back when Apollo ended, says Neal, NASA just boxed everything up and shipped it to the Smithsonian. This time around, far more museums and institutions will get a chance at getting an artifact. And the Smithsonian has to be more selective because it is planning to request only about 500 items.
That means Neal and her fellow curators have to decide now what historians and museumgoers will want to see decades into the future. "So we're really trying to play this mind game of figuring out, for the long term, what's really important and why," says Neal.
A Space Shuttle Wish List
Neal's wish list includes everything from technical items, like a piece of orange insulating foam from the shuttle's fuel tank, to things associated with famous space trips, like Shannon Lucid's visit to the Mir space station.
Neal also is extremely interested in the everyday items used by astronauts, such as a sample of their favorite space food.
"They love the shrimp cocktail. Why shrimp cocktail?" she wonders, explaining that this question could really get people's interest in a museum exhibit. "We don't have shrimp cocktail in the collection yet so I specifically would like to get a shrimp cocktail, if they're not all eaten up."
Neal recently was headed to Houston to look at a shuttle crew training module, to see how it could be made into a museum display. She says it can be odd to size up equipment that's still in use, and NASA workers usually have a couple of different reactions.
"One, there's a kind of sense of regret that the shuttle program is coming to an end because people have been living it for 30 years," says Neal. "And then the other is that, they say, 'These are artifacts? This is just stuff. You know, this is what we work with every day.' "