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The Space Shuttle Discovery is set to land Wednesday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. And then it's off to a Smithsonian retirement. The NASA shuttle program is ending.
Now, museums all around the country are eager to get one of the two other surviving orbiters: Endeavour and Atlantis.
NPR's Noah Adams reports on the hopes and dreams of one Midwest museum.
NOAH ADAMS: If you want to make NASA officials happy when you're trying to sell your museum, tell them about the yellow school buses out in the parking lot.
The kids come in, their heads full of computer games, and they see actual airplanes and actual rockets.
Ms. JUDITH WEHN (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force): And we get that question a lot from students, is this real? And go, yes, it really is. This airplane actually flew during World War II.
ADAMS: Judith Wehn runs the educational programs here at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. She loves to hear the word wow.
Ms. WEHN: You can see, for instance, a shuttle on television, but imagine standing right next to it. The shuttle orbiter itself is 122 feet long. The distance of the Wright Brothers' first flight was 120 feet.
ADAMS: I'm inside the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. It's part of the Air Force. It's on the Wright-Patterson Base. The Wright Brothers' original flying field is nearby. There is a teachable heritage here. And Dayton also fits with NASA's thoughts about location: Put the shuttles where the people are.
Lieutenant General U.S. Air Force, Retired, Jack Hudson is the museum director.
Lieutenant General JACK HUDSON (Retired, U.S. Air Force; Director, National Museum of the U.S. Air Force): We have free admission and free parking here, and we're within a day's drive of 61 percent of the American population.
ADAMS: That indeed is the mantra of the Air Force Museum: close to a lot of people, it's free. And as my wife's Uncle Bob always tells me, Noah, it's got the best air conditioning in Ohio.
To go through the museum, that's a long day's walking, more than 300 exhibits: the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki; the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane; Titan missiles; an Apollo space capsule. And for General Jack Hudson and his team of curators, it's important to get the planes that come with stories.
Lt. Gen. HUDSON: The A-10 that you see over here was flown by a pilot whose name is Paul Johnson. He flew that in Operation Desert Storm on an eight-hour mission where he was flying top cover for other people who were rescuing a downed pilot.
So people have worked long and hard to get the right kind of airplanes in here with the right significance. The one that we really would like to have, to be the capstone of the collection, is the shuttle.
Unidentified Man: Mission Control, Houston. The space shuttle now rolling over onto its back. They are going to ride into orbit. Discovery now making one last reach for the stars.
ADAMS: Discovery is at this moment in orbit. The shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis each have one more flight.
Mr. MARK BROWN (Former Astronaut): My name is Mark Brown. I'm a former Air Force colonel, fighter pilot and engineer. And I'm also a former astronaut.
ADAMS: Mark Brown has flown on Discovery and Challenger. He's on the board of the Air Force Museum's foundation. They're raising money for a new space gallery. The shuttle would arrive here, outside, flying on top of a 747, and then new visitors.
Mr. BROWN: Right now, we have a little over 1.1 million people a year come through. And if you're really optimistic, we could actually double that.
ADAMS: Mark Brown wants to collect memories from all the former astronauts to help the museum bring space closer.
Mr. BROWN: When you're actually going out to the launch pad, you're all wearing your orange pressure suits and you're riding in the Astrovan, which is a shiny, you know, aluminum RV, for all intents and purposes, down the road out to the rocket that's on the launch pad. And you feel like you're in a science fiction movie. It is really cool. And you're looking around at each other like, wow. We're going to go to space today. How often do you get to do that?
ADAMS: In April, NASA will announce where the other two shuttles are going. The Kennedy Space Center in Florida is said to be a favorite site, along with Johnson Space Center in Houston. Museums on the West Coast have a chance and the Dayton Air Force Museum.
Noah Adams, NPR News, Dayton, Ohio.
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