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Today is the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch. NASA's aging shuttles will be retired this year with just two flights to go. After that, the iconic black and white spaceships are headed for museums, and their lucky new caretakers were revealed this afternoon.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that the announcement marks the emotional end to a fierce competition among museums across the country.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Former space shuttle commander Charles Bolden is the top official at NASA. Today, he stood in front of Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, speaking to NASA workers.

Mr. CHARLES BOLDEN (NASA): I'm proud to announce where these national treasures will be displayed and enjoyed by millions of Americans once the shuttle program concludes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: As he started to say that Atlantis would make its final home right there at Kennedy's visitor center, the crowd went wild.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bolden himself was clearly moved.

Mr. BOLDEN: Thanks very much. I think I know what it does for you. You have no idea what that applause did for me. It's been a rough day.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He went on to say Space Shuttle Discovery will go to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Endeavour will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, and a prototype shuttle that never flew in space, called Enterprise, will be going to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City.

These museums are celebrating, but Bolden knew he was disappointing 17 other contenders.

Mr. BOLDEN: There were many, many worthy institutions that requested an orbiter and only four to go around.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Tuesday's announcement ends a suspenseful, high-stakes competition. NASA requested that museums make their pitches back in 2008; the hopefuls went all out to try to impress the agency. They've stressed their numbers of visitors, their historical ties to the space program, their grand plans to display the shuttle while NASA remained mostly silent.

Valerie Neal is a space historian at the Smithsonian. She says she thought her famous museum would get one but wasn't sure.

Ms. VALERIE NEAL (Space Historian, Smithsonian): This has been such a long, drawn-out process. I never felt we could take anything for granted. And I think all of us had doubts along the way because we just didn't know how the process would work.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Today she was relieved and thrilled.

Ms. NEAL: My celebration of choice is always a glass of champagne. So when I go home I may do that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Houston, home of mission control and the Astronaut Corps, could only watch with sadness and disbelief as shuttles went to L.A. and New York. Several family members of astronauts who died in space shuttle tragedies put out a statement saying the decision left them heartbroken.

Richard Allen is president of Space Center Houston, where a crowd gathered to watch the announcement on TV.

Mr. RICHARD ALLEN (President, Space Center Houston): I received a call about an hour and a half before the announcement, just as a courtesy, from NASA headquarters. But I was asked not to divulge that to anybody.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Was it hard for you to watch the proceedings knowing what you knew?

Mr. ALLEN: Bittersweet I guess would be a good term. I mean, you know, when you're sitting there watching the faces of the people that were here with anticipation of one possibly coming here, knowing that that wasn't going to happen, it's kind of bittersweet to watch that play out.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Emotions ran high all day. NASA administrator Bolden choked up as he told the chosen museums to take good care of these historic spaceships.

Mr. BOLDEN: They've served the nation well, and we at NASA have a deep and abiding relationship and love affair with them that's hard to put into words.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA expects to have the shuttles ready for their new homes six to nine months after their last flights. The final launch is scheduled for June.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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