NASA's Bolden speaks on future of space shuttles

March 23, 2011 4:02:20 PM PDT
Eyewitness News has an exclusive one-on-one interview with the man in charge of NASA as the agency prepares for an historic and controversial shift in space strategy.

With the retirement of the shuttle program looming, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is opening up about the space agency's decision on where the retired shuttles will spend the rest of their days. A lot of Houston residents feel an obvious choice should be the Johnson Space Center -- the location of mission control.

By most accounts it was an emotional meeting Wednesday morning as five family members of the crews lost on shuttle Columbia and Challenger tried to convince Bolden that a shuttle should be retired here.

Before the end of the year, NASA's fleet of space shuttles will be retired. Among those pushing for one to come to Houston is Evelyn Husband-Thompson.

When we asked Husband-Thompson if she thought she made any headway today, she replied, "Hard to say."

Husband-Thompson was married to Columbia commander Rick Husband. He was among those killed when the shuttle disintegrated upon reentry in 2003. She says she was stunned to find out recently that Houston was not guaranteed an orbiter and this morning was among a small group of those who lost family in flight who are petitioning NASA for one.

"Every friend that I have was shocked that it even was an issue. That it's totally logical for a space shuttle to be in Houston," Husband-Thompson said. "It would mean so much to be able to take my family and friends and to be able to come look at the orbiter any time we wanted to."

Space Center Houston is one of 29 entities vying for one of the vehicles.

Making the decision on who gets one he calls ever more difficult given today's meeting with the Challenger and Columbia families.

"They were incredible advocates and I told them essentially what I'm telling you which is we have a process in place that I think is fair. It's going to make a very difficult decision, very difficult. There is no way to make it easy. In the end, the four places that have an orbiter sitting there will be places that were very deserving, representative of a cross section of America," Bolden told us.

The choice will ultimately be made by Bolden.

"If I were not the NASA administrator, I would say the places that should get an orbiter are Houston, the Cape (Canaveral)," Bolden told us. "Any place that played a vital role in the design, development and operation of space shuttle."

That said, Bolden is the NASA administrator and he says it's a difficult decision, one based primarily on: the number of people facilities can prove might see the orbiters; whether they can pay the $28 million tab to "safe" and house each vehicle; and an area's ties to shuttle and space flight. But there's only three shuttles left that have flown in space. There is actually a fourth vehicle if you figure in the Enterprise, a craft used for tests but one which never flew in space.

"Even if I use that as criteria, I don't have enough orbiters. I have four. I can think of six to 10 places that really ought to get one," Bolden said.

He says his decision will be announced April 12 on the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle flight.