space capsule from U.S. space program in museum

Although they’re made to withstand serious abuse, you can’t just plop a space capsule into a museum exhibit. Plenty of work must be completed prior to public display.

Courtesy 40 Nights Photography and Strategic Air & Space Museum)

Spacecraft are a unique culmination of humankind's technological ingenuity. They require untold millions of dollars and man hours to build and are jammed with bleeding-edge gadgetry. And then one day they are simply outdated ... and out of work.

Then, some of these once-glorious spaceships start their second lives as celebrities and star attractions at museums. But how exactly does a ship that once roamed the stars become an Earth-bound attraction suitable for long-term public viewing?

It starts, of course with an acquisition process. If you're in charge of a museum looking to score a major piece of space history, it helps to know exactly what piece you need to flesh out your collection. Perhaps you're looking for just a few artifacts that traveled to the moon. Or maybe you're audacious enough to ask for an entire space shuttle.

You might start by inquiring directly with NASA or a related space agency that's in possession of said objects. In some instances, you might even approach a private collector who had the means (and cash) to acquire a spacecraft.

There's a lot of competition for decommissioned spaceships, so the process almost invariably is much more formal and requires a lot of planning and paperwork. If you happen to run one of many private space museums, it's unlikely NASA will just donate one of their old machines to you. In that case, the piece is loaned for a predetermined amount of time.

That is, of course, unless you happen to run the Smithsonian. Because the Smithsonian is another government-run facility, the spacecraft is simply transferred from one agency to another, again, for a specified duration.

There's more work involved if you want a limited-edition item like a space shuttle. For these crown jewels, NASA set forth strict requirements. They wanted each shuttle to have the largest possible audience (meaning a museum near a large metro area), as well as a state-of-the-art display facility. Each recipient also had to pony up a galaxy-sized pile of money for display preparations and transportation costs.

Of course, smaller craft and individual pieces of space gear are much easier to come by. So, play your zero-gravity space chips just right and you might land a lunar lander (or a copy, anyway). But the work to make that piece museum-ready -- and to transport it to its display hall -- well, that part takes a space-age-type effort.