Free Shuttle Artifacts!

The four orbiters are already taken, but thousands more shuttle-related items are still available—at no cost.

NASA astronaut Rex Walheim walks past the Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT) as the crew of STS-135 trains in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) at the Johnson Space Center on Wednesday, June 29, 2011, in Houston. The training marked the crew's final scheduled session in JSC Building 9, or SVMF. ( NASA Photo / Houston Chronicle, Smiley N. Pool ) NASA Photo / Houston Chronicle,

Currently up for grabs on a government website: a pair of astronaut pants, a spacewalker’s life-support backpack, a spacesuit glove, and thousands of black insulating tiles from the bellies of the space shuttle orbiters.

Now that the shuttle has retired after 30 years, NASA is having the equivalent of a massive going-out-of-business sale.

While most of the media attention last spring focused on where the vehicles themselves would go on display (Washington, Los Angeles, Florida's Kennedy Space Center and New York) thousands of lesser pieces of shuttle history are still looking for permanent homes. With help from the General Services Administration, NASA is giving away everything from spare main engines to sunglasses worn by the astronauts. The artifacts will go to museums, universities, elementary schools, libraries and planetariums all over the country to become part of their permanent collections. The GSA has a website for screening artifacts, so that institutions can view and apply to receive specific pieces.

In fact, the nuts and bolts of the shuttle program have been steadily trickling away from NASA since 2009. The artifacts are offered in batches as they are decommissioned, screened and, if necessary, disassembled. Of the roughly 24,000 artifacts posted on the website, more than 3,000 have been given away so far.

Jerry Phillips was hired by NASA’s logistics department to manage the process of allocating artifacts. Part of the job, he says, is to determine which of the millions of objects associated with the shuttle program should be considered artifacts worthy of offering to educational institutions.

Like many museum curators around the country, Stewart Bailey of the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, originally was hoping for one of the four orbiters. But he finds that the smaller shuttle relics Evergreen managed to acquire can be just as fascinating to his museum’s visitors. One of his favorite items is a flown roll of duct tape. It looks just like a regular roll of duct tape, except it’s been to space.

“It’s one of those objects that you can say, instantaneously, I know what that is, and it’s like, wow, the astronauts use it too,” says Bailey. “It ties into what people see and do in their everyday life.”

The competition for some shuttle artifacts is stiff, with several institutions often vying for a particularly prized item. Bailey says that NASA is giving special consideration to museums with local ties to a given artifact, including whether it was manufactured in that area.

Texas A&M’s Aerospace Engineering department was awarded the Johnson Space Center’s Shuttle Mission Simulator (SMS), partly because several of their alumni had worked with the realistic motion-based trainer used by shuttle astronauts. According to John Valasek, a professor in the department, the simulator will be reassembled and restored to full operational use as both a research and educational tool for the university. "We are committed to preserving and maintaining the SMS in exactly the form it was used for astronaut training,” he says. As of now, the simulator is the only working piece of shuttle program equipment that will remain in Texas.

NASA offers the shuttle artifacts free of charge, but the recipients have to cover the cost of moving them to their new homes. That could add up to a mere $23.40 to ship one insulating tile, or $4 million to disassemble, transport and reassemble Texas A&M’s SMS simulator.

It won’t be cheap to move the Seattle Museum of Flight’s new attraction, either. The Full Fuselage Trainer, or FFT, is as big as a shuttle orbiter and looks identical, aside from having no wings. It weighs 90,000 lbs, but unlike an orbiter, it comes apart.

That’s a huge advantage in exhibiting the trainer for museum-goers, says Curator and Director of Collections Dan Hagedorn. “Unlike the actual orbiters, we’re going to be able to afford access, at least limited access, to the Full Fuselage Trainer,” he says. The Museum of Flight plans to separate the forward crew compartment from the rest of the fuselage, installing a transparent barrier so that visitors can see inside the cockpit, which is identical to the cockpits in the flown shuttle vehicles. The museum also is considering turning the trainer’s cargo bay into a small theater for screening interpretive media, and installing a starry panorama in the museum’s ceiling so that the view through the open cargo bay doors looks and feels like the view spacewalking astronauts would have seen.

The FFT was a crucial element of the shuttle program. Every single shuttle astronaut trained in it, and because it is mostly identical to the orbiters, it was often used to solve sudden in-flight engineering problems from the ground.

Hagedorn, too, was hoping for a flown orbiter. The Museum of Flight had even gone so far as to construct a $12 million, climate-controlled building made especially for housing a space shuttle, in the hope of being awarded one of the four vehicles. But Hagedorn now believes the FFT is a bigger, better catch for his visitors.

“Although they are truly awe-inspiring objects, [the orbiters] sit there in their serene virginity and don’t do anything,” he says. “Whereas [with] the full fuselage trainer, we’re actually going to be able to show people how this thing worked. And we’re very excited about that.”

Brigitte Gruener, a science teacher at Mohawk Elementary in Macomb Township, Michigan, sent away for one of the 4,000 shuttle tiles NASA has allocated so far. When she presented it to her students and asked them what they thought it was, she got answers ranging from a piece of Styrofoam to a piece of glass. Then one student said, “that looks like a piece of the space shuttle.” And so it is.

Gruener had her students break into groups and begin researching their little piece of shuttle history (which is numbered) to find out where on the orbiter it may have come from. So far, they think it was from somewhere under one of the cockpit windows.

“It is inspiring to have this very real part of the space program as a part of our science program,” says Gruener. “Every time I hold it I am amazed how far the space program has evolved.”

All the institutions receiving shuttle artifacts relish the opportunity to teach their visitors and students about human spaceflight while helping to preserve its history. Hagedorn and the Museum of Flight have plans to share their high-quality interpretive material with the museums that received actual orbiters (lest they become giant paperweights), and Bailey’s Evergreen will use its artifacts to help explain the science of spaceflight, including, yes, how astronauts go to the bathroom.

NASA has shut down space programs before, says Phillips, but this time the agency may be paying more attention to ensuring that the smaller artifacts find a home. “I think the difference is that in the past, with the rush to the moon, they were in such a hurry, and [NASA had] this concept that spaceflight would be around forever,” he says. “Now I think they’re a little more concerned about the legacy they’re leaving.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.