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Saurn V at Space Center Houston
The Saturn V on display at Space Center Houston. (credit: D. Day)

Giants in glass houses

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In April 2011, NASA announced the locations where the retired space shuttle orbiters would be located. The Smithsonian received Discovery, Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex received Atlantis, and Endeavour was allocated to Los Angeles’s California Science Center. Enterprise, previously hosted by the Smithsonian, would head to New York City’s Intrepid Air and Space Museum. Naturally, communities that did not receive an orbiter, but felt that they deserved one, were outraged—outrage being the default response to perceived slights these days. Congressional delegations in both Texas and Ohio called for investigations of NASA’s site selection process. A NASA Inspector General investigation found some errors in NASA’s rating of the various locations, but no evidence of negligence or political influence. Nevertheless, some grumbling still persists, and when Enterprise was recently damaged during transport to its museum location, some crowed that this was proof that New York City didn’t deserve her, and Houston would have treated her better.

Although the museum proposals stood (and fell) on their own merits, there is a relatively simple rule of thumb that could be applied to the institutions that wanted an orbiter: how well do they do displaying the major artifacts already in their collections? In the past month I have had the opportunity to visit all three locations that have a Saturn V rocket on display: the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex, the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center (see “A mighty roar”, The Space Review, July 9, 2012), and Space Center Houston.

Both the Kennedy and Huntsville locations have outstanding facilities and exhibits for displaying their Saturn V rockets. They are both obviously proud of what they have and how they represent their communities. They both followed different paths toward funding their facilities, but the end results are impressive and demonstrate a commitment both to honoring the objects and their designers and builders, as well as educating current and future generations of the public.

Houston is another story.

Saurn V building at Space Center Houston
The temporary building hosting the Saturn V is showing signs of deterioration. (credit: D. Day)

Space Center Houston’s Saturn V is located in a temporary building that is not on the actual museum grounds. The building looks like a large shed, and lacks the dramatic windows of the other two facilities. Unlike the other Saturn V rockets, the public can see it for free, if they know how to reach it and are not intimidated by the fact that they have to go through the Johnson Space Center security gate in order to pull into the parking lot.

The building is well-lit, but relatively simply outfitted on the inside, without much room either in front of or behind the vehicle. The building includes wall displays, but no other artifacts or media like at the other two sites. Unfortunately, although intended as a temporary structure, and erected in the middle of the last decade, such buildings often have a tendency to become permanent.

Saurn V building at Space Center Houston
The temporary building hosting the Saturn V is showing signs of deterioration. (credit: D. Day)

What is more dismaying is that the building containing the Saturn V is starting to deteriorate. Interior insulation is starting to crack and peel, showing considerable degradation from my last visit a year ago. This simply reinforces the impression that the Saturn V is being stored in a big garage.

Saurn V hin Huntsville
By comparison, the Saturn V is presented much better in Huntsville… (credit: D. Day)

Houston has had the Saturn V for decades. It has housed it indoors for almost seven years, and yet the city has not improved the presentation or shown any indication that it intends to display the Saturn V with any of the affection and intelligence that the Kennedy and Huntsville communities have given to their Saturn Vs. If you look at what Houston has done it is hard not to wonder if they would have treated a shuttle orbiter with the same indifference.

Saurn V at KSC
…and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (credit: D. Day)

Maybe being overlooked for a shuttle will be a wakeup call for Space Center Houston to get their act together and start aspiring to be like the better space museums. Houston has been swimming in petrodollars for a long time now, so money is not an issue; a good fundraising effort should be able to gather more than enough money from the local community. What matters is organization and leadership, and based upon the degradation of the Saturn V building, and Space Center Houston’s unenthusiastic display of a rare piece of space history, those requirements appear to be in short supply.