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NASA fails to calm Houston anger over lost shuttle

Thursday, August 25, 2011
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nasa, local

A month after NASA closed out its space shuttle program, a watchdog group is now defending the decision not to retire a shuttle here in Houston. It's a sensitive subject for many who feel our area was the heart of that program for decades.

Staff at Space Center Houston told us they believe they submitted a solid proposal, but a newly released report is revealing some new details about NASA's selection process.

Space Center Houston was initially on a NASA team's list of sites to receive a retired space shuttle orbiter. But a huge blow to those plans came back in April.

When NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced Houston didn't make the final four destinations for the space shuttles.

"Yes, we are disappointed that we didn't get an orbiter, but we're moving on beyond that," said Richard Allen of Space Center Houston.

Many fans of NASA, space programs and some lawmakers have since questioned the agency's process and why NASA changed its criteria for deciding the new homes for those orbiters.

Now this newly released report from the Office of Inspector General says despite several evaluation errors.

"We found no evidence that the team recommendation or the administrator's decision was tainted by political influence or any other improper consideration," the report read in part.

"We would love to have had Atlantis, but it wasn't within their purview to adjust the criteria as they saw fit. You can agree with it or disagree with it, but the fact remains that the OIG said that it was OK for them to do that," said Allen.

The report shows NASA's team judged nearly 30 sites, primarily focusing on attendance numbers, regional population, and access to international visitors. Houston scored low with international visitors and attendance.

"When you look at us, we're the second largest space visitor center in attendance, but we're rated relatively low in some other groups," said Allen.

He's also puzzled why international visitors drove the criteria so much. And so was this couple who happens to be visiting Space Center Houston from Korea.

"I think it's a shame. It's sad that we won't have that kind of piece of history," said Tim Park.

Allen told us the staff at Space Center Houston is obviously disappointed, but despite what the report says, the center has a 10-year plan in place that the public will enjoy.

You can read the OIG's entire report by clicking here.

Report: NASA made proper pick for retired shuttles

NASA acted properly when it picked new homes for the retired space shuttles, the space agency's watchdog said Thursday.

The shuttles were awarded in April to museums in suburban Washington, Los Angeles, Cape Canaveral, Fla., and New York, based on recommendations by a special NASA team and a decision by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former shuttle commander.

Congressional and local officials for two of the losing cities -- Houston and Dayton -- had asked for an investigation, alleging political influences in the bidding process.

"We found no evidence that the team's recommendation or the administrator's decision were tainted by political influence of any other improper consideration," Inspector General Paul Martin wrote in the report released Thursday. "Moreover, we found no attempt by White House officials to direct or influence Bolden's decision making."

The decision was based on attendance, population, funding and the facility. NASA said 13 of the bidders met their requirements and rated those on several categories, giving them a numerical score.

There was a scoring error for the Air Force Museum in Dayton and it should have tied with Cape Canaveral and New York, the inspector general found. But NASA chief Bolden told investigators that had he known about the tie, he still would have stuck with the cities he selected because they had bigger populations and more international visitors. Also Dayton museum officials told him they might not be able to raise enough money.

Space Center Houston next door to Johnson Space Center ranked near the bottom of the list. It scored low for attendance, international visitors, museum accreditation and difficulty transporting a shuttle there. Museums in Chicago, Seattle, Riverside, Calif., San Diego and McMinnville, Ore., all scored higher than Houston.

Bolden, who lived in Houston for many years as an astronaut and Marine and still has a home there, told investigators that personally, "I would have loved to have placed an Orbiter in Houston," but that it had lower attendance and fewer international visitors than the winners.

Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership president Bob Mitchell says the report makes clear Houston was initially rewarded a shuttle. He says proof that the decision was motivated by politics comes from the city's request getting denied after the criteria changed.

The 30-year space shuttle program ended with the last flight in July.

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum had already been promised one shuttle for its hangar in Dulles, Va. It will get Discovery, and give up the Enterprise, a test vehicle that never flew in orbit. That will be shipped to the Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum in New York City. Atlantis will stay in Cape Canaveral and go to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Endeavour will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

The Florida and California museums, but not the Smithsonian, will have to pay at least $20 million to make the shuttles that flew in space safe for display -- removing toxic materials and fuels -- and transportation costs. NASA is picking up the tab for the Smithsonian. The shuttles are all still at Kennedy Space Center being decommissioned.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report

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