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The space shuttle Discovery is making its final homecoming. The beloved spaceship is scheduled to land later this morning. Its next voyage will be to a museum. As NASA retires its shuttle fleet, even some small museums think they have a shot at landing a spaceship that could rocket them into the big time.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: A couple of years ago, Zach Cummings was driving to his job at a Texas oil field engineering firm. He was listening to a morning talk show. And the radio guys said NASA was accepting requests from places that wanted to get a used space shuttle.

Mr. ZACH CUMMINGS (Employee of Oil Engineering Firm): So they were just kind of giggling about it and joking on the radio.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Cummings happens to be passing the campus of Texas A&M University, where he'd gone to school.

Mr. CUMMINGS: I thought wow, what a great idea. Wouldn't it be nice if we could get it in Texas?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now, you might think any retired shuttle headed for Texas would go to Houston, home of Mission Control. And, indeed, the space center in Houston has requested one. But Cummings thought: Why not my town? And so it came to pass that he got a new job, drumming up support for bringing a shuttle to the Brazos Valley in Texas. Deborah Cowman runs the local natural history museum. It exhibits things like minerals and fossils.

Ms. DEBORAH COWMAN (Brazos Valley Natural History Museum): When you first walk in, I think one of the things you would be struck with is a complete skeleton of a ice age cave bear.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But her vision is that a space shuttle will be the centerpiece of a expanded museum built on the campus of Texas A&M, near the library of a former president who likes the idea and says so on the museum's website.

President GEORGE BUSH: Howdy. I'm President George Bush, and I invite you to participate in an exciting opportunity to obtain a retired space shuttle and display it in an expansion of the Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History.

Ms. COWMAN: We have managed to become a very serious contender.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: You think you have a real shot at it?

Ms. COWMAN: Oh, definitely. I definitely think that we are going to get one of the shuttles.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The trouble is, other museums also think they'd be the perfect showcase - 21 museums, to be precise. NASA only has three shuttles, and one of them, Discovery, is basically promised to the Smithsonian. You do the math.

Mr. BOB SHEROUSE (NASA): It's going to be a tough decision.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bob Sherouse is managing the selection process for NASA. He says NASA administrator Charles Bolden is considering all the options.

Mr. SHEROUSE: At this point, I think anything is possible.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The lucky museums will have to pay about $29 million to prepare and transport the shuttle. And they have to display it indoors. Museums are going all-out to impress NASA. Some efforts go way beyond letter-writing campaigns. Seattle's Museum of Flight is already building a huge new exhibit hall with glass walls. All that's missing is the spaceship. Doug King runs the museum.

Mr. DOUG KING (Seattle's Museum of Flight): Almost everybody that you can find says to me: When are we going to get the shuttle? When are we going to hear about the shuttle? It's become a community event.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And if his community is passionate, imagine how folks feel in Florida, where the space shuttles have been their pride and joy for three decades.

Mr. BILL MOORE (Director, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex): Every launch of the space shuttle program left here from Kennedy, and more than half of those came back and landed here.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bill Moore is head of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. It's planning a $100 million exhibit that will suspend a shuttle in the air to make it look like it's in orbit. Moore says it's only natural that a shuttle would retire in Florida. If one doesn't, the local reaction will be not good.

Mr. MOORE: I think people would be beyond disappointed. This would be a very emotional decision, were it not to be placed here.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For Florida's Space Coast and all the other places hoping to bring a bit of history home, the day of reckoning is April 12th. That's when NASA says it will reveal the spaceships' final destinations.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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