What does it take to turn a spaceship into a museum piece?

Next Time, Use a Transporter
You need heavy equipment and a well-conceived plan of action to move gigantic space hardware.
You need heavy equipment and a well-conceived plan of action to move gigantic space hardware.
Courtesy 40 Nights Photography and Strategic Air & Space Museum

Disassembly comes at a high price. Only qualified technicians know how to break down and then rebuild such specialized machines, so the museum must foot the bill for their labor. And this process is so expensive and time-consuming that it's not always a viable option.

That was definitely true when it came to the three retired space shuttles. NASA required each shuttle to remain totally intact during transport, in part to cut costs but also to the preserve the last-flight look and battle scars evident on each ship.

Moving the shuttle Endeavour to the California Science Center (CSC) was a classic case of the challenges involved with this project. Because the shuttles can't fly without help, they were strapped to the backs of 747s and flown to their destination cities. For the CSC, that was Los Angeles.

Then the five-story tall, 78-foot wide craft was rolled along 12 miles of city streets to the CSC. To make this possible, the city had to raise power lines and cut down hundreds of (eventually replaced) trees. And as a gesture of goodwill towards local residents angry about the trees, the CSC invested $2 million into communities affected by the tree removal.

The final price tag of all of this transportation-related work? Nearly $29 million.

That number doesn't even factor in the display facility. For the shuttle Atlantis, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida blew a cool $100 million.

And as for upkeep? Well, that's even more. According to Brian York, curator at Strategic Air & Space Museum near Omaha, Nebraska, museums have three basic options when it comes to servicing defunct spacecraft: preservation, restoration or just leaving it as-is.

Preservation can mean removing any matter (such as mold or rust) that could result in material degradation. It may also mean creating a shell to protect a craft from environmental conditions and from the busy hands of museum visitors. In extreme cases it could mean hiding a craft in a sealed room forever, with only a replica on display.

Restoration might include removing damaged sections and replacing them so that the craft looks brand new. Or, a museum (or space agency) might decide that a craft best tells its story it its heavily-used condition so that everyone can see the abuse these machines must absorb.

Upkeep varies depending on the type of display. In a protected display, a little light cleaning might suffice for years. But in hands-on exhibits, curators must be prepared to repaint and repair items continuously because visitors will push, pull and turn every knob and lever in sight.

It's just one more budget item in a very long list of expenses involved in displaying spacecraft at a museum. Spacecraft display, like spaceflight itself, clearly does not come easy, or cheap.

More to Explore