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March Field Air Museum hopes to land a space shuttle

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March Field Air Museum hopes to land a space shuttle

Picture of Dan Lee
The Press-Enterprise
Sunday, March 29, 2009

An Inland museum is seeking to become one of only three museums in the country to acquire and display one of the space shuttles after NASA retires the vehicles.

The March Field Air Museum has submitted a proposal to NASA outlining how it would display the shuttle.

The March Joint Powers Authority, the museum's landlord and the agency overseeing the conversion of former military property at March Air Reserve Base to civilian uses, is a joint applicant.

Perris City Councilman Mark Yarbrough, who heads the March Joint Powers Commission, suggested pursuing a shuttle after seeing a news story that NASA was offering to donate the spacecraft to museums, educational institutions and other organizations.

"It clearly would be a destination point and an attraction. . . . It would be a powerful educational tool," Yarbrough said by phone.

The space shuttle was the world's first reusable spacecraft.

Six shuttles were built: Challenger and Columbia were destroyed in catastrophic accidents in 1986 and 2003, respectively, killing all on board.

The Enterprise never flew in space, but was used for studies prior to the first shuttle mission in 1981.

The Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum displays it near Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C.

NASA is donating the Discovery to the Smithsonian, leaving Atlantis and Endeavour for other museums, Katherine Trinidad, a NASA spokeswoman, said by e-mail.

The space agency is reviewing the proposals that were submitted by the deadline earlier this month, Trinidad said.

The shuttles are not expected to be available for donation until September 2011, NASA has said.

Museum supporters want the Endeavour because Astronaut Tracy Caldwell, a Beaumont High School graduate, flew on that shuttle in 2007.

"We're trying to put a human face on the shuttle by telling her story," museum Executive Director Patricia Korzec said.

The museum proposes to display the shuttle in a new indoor facility.

A column would hold the spacecraft aloft with its cargo bay doors open and an astronaut figure floating nearby.

Visitors would not be allowed inside the shuttle, but they could walk around it on an elevated, transparent walkway.

The floor below would be painted black, and the ceiling would have a depiction of Earth.

"It will give you a feeling of a spacewalk," Korzec said.

Museum officials are working to incorporate an IMAX theater as part of the new building.

The shuttle would be visible from Interstate 215.

Tough Competition

Competition for the shuttles is expected to be keen, but Korzec and Yarbrough noted that the museum has already proved it can land significant exhibits, including an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane and a B-52 bomber.

Southern California should receive a shuttle because of the region's long association with aerospace, they said.

The museum is positioned to draw upon the rapidly growing population from a five-county area, and March Air Reserve Base already draws thousands to its air shows, museum President Jamil Dada said.

Transportation improvements already are under way that could help improve museum visitors' access.

Riverside County is working on a $95 million project to replace the Van Buren Boulevard bridge over I-215 with a wider structure and improve circulation on the freeway ramps.

Construction is projected to begin by fall 2011.

In addition, Metrolink plans to begin commuter train service on the Perris Valley Line in 2011, which will include a stop near the air base.

The museum seeks accreditation from the American Association of Museums.

Only 10 aerospace museums nationwide have accreditation, association spokesman Dewey Blanton said.

Accreditation, which is voluntary, helps museums seek private funding and grants, and it also helps them to borrow materials from other museums, which know that their exhibits will be taken care of, Blanton said by phone.

Cost Estimates

Although NASA will donate the orbiter vehicle, preparing the shuttle for public display won't exactly be cheap.

The space agency estimates that it would cost $42 million, including at least $6 million to ferry the orbiter by aircraft from the Kennedy Space Center to an airport near the museum that will display the shuttle.

The estimate doesn't include ground transportation for the shuttle to its final destination, which could require removing the light posts and traffic signals, NASA authorities have said.

The airport also must have a runway between 8,000 and 10,000 feet long, depending on the altitude and other conditions at the landing site.

March Air Reserve Base has a long enough runway and is next door to the museum, making delivery easier, Dada said.

A new exhibit might cost about $24 million, about the cost of a new parking structure at Riverside Community College, he said.

"We think if NASA were to award us the space shuttle . . . that there is so much money available from the aerospace companies and private foundations," he added by phone. "We're confident that because it's an educational thing . . . we'll get educational dollars" as well.