MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
NASA is just months away from ending its space shuttle program. The shuttles have been flying for nearly 30 years. And if you've ever had to clean out a house you've lived in for a long time, you can imagine how much stuff NASA has accumulated over those three decades.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on how the agency is trying to make sure each piece of history finds a home.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: About four years ago, when it became clear that the shuttle program would be ending in 2010, NASA started trying to figure out what parts of its huge inventory might be worth saving. Joel Kearns is the transition manager for space operations at NASA headquarters.
Mr. JOEL KEARNS (Transition Manager, Space Operations, NASA): I was really surprised that everyone had a different opinion of what was a valuable artifact and what wasn't.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He is an engineer, so he personally likes old computers.
Mr. KEARNS: So whenever I would see these on the list, I would look at that and say, oh, some museum's really going to want that; that looks like an artifact. 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. But they came up with things that I never thought people would find value in.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Things like windows for the space shuttles. A museum could use one of those to make a cockpit display. So, a precious artifact may be in the eye of the beholder, and Kearns says there's a lot of decisions to be made.
Mr. KEARNS: The whole space shuttle program has about - over a million line items of personal property that they have on their books. And that ranges from nuts and bolts and little pieces of computer parts, all the way up to the space shuttle orbiters themselves.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA has three space shuttles. Space Shuttle Discovery has already been promised to the Smithsonian. So far, about 20 organizations have put in requests for a shuttle. The shuttle itself is free, but whoever gets one will be expected to cough up about $29 million to prepare and transport it. NASA should announce the lucky winners of Endeavor and Atlantis this spring. Meanwhile, NASA is putting other shuttle goodies up on a Web site so that educational institutions can browse through them, places like museums, universities and science centers - the public need not apply. Jerry Phillips works on the Web site for NASA. He showed me how you just log in, click on shuttle, and see a list of categories.
(Soundbite of typing)
Mr. JERRY PHILLIPS (Web Site Builder, NASA): For instance, let's look at what we have available for clothing, special-purpose clothing. It shows that we have four items.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: You can see a photo of dirty deerskin gloves that astronauts used in orbit. There's shorts and shirts. We click around and see items in other categories, like exercise equipment and shuttle parts.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Now when you see this, you could actually, just like an eBay shopping experience, you could add this to a shopping cart and go through a full checkout procedure.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Unlike shopping at Amazon.com, a request does not guarantee getting an item. A special committee decides where each item will go. NASA's visitor centers in the Smithsonian get first dibs. About 900 items went up last October, and every single one had a taker. Today, the agency posted another 2,500 bits of history to the Web site.
Ms. VALERIE NEAL (Curator, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum): This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Valerie Neal is a curator with the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
Ms. NEAL: A program of this significance ends once a generation.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Neal says back when Apollo ended, NASA just boxed everything up and sent it to the Smithsonian. This time, the Smithsonian has to be more selective. It's planning to request only about 500 items. Curators have to decide now what historians and museum goers will want to see decades into the future.
Ms. NEAL: So, we're really trying to play this mind game of figuring out for the long term what's really important and why, and can we get it?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She showed me her wish list. It includes technical things, like a piece of orange insulating foam from the shuttle's fuel tank; things associated with famous space fliers, like Shannon Lucid; plus everyday things, like astronauts' favorite space food.
Ms. NEAL: They love the shrimp cocktail. Why shrimp cocktail?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. NEAL: 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.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Just last week, Neal was headed to Houston to look at a 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. NASA workers usually have a couple of different reactions.
Ms. NEAL: One, there is a kind of sense of regret that the shuttle program is coming to an end because people have been living it for 30 years. 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.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But if they're going to have to stop working with it every day, they're at least glad to know they'll be able to visit it in a museum.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.