Say what you will about choosing New York over Houston to host a retired space shuttle orbiter, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden did the agency no favors with some ill-advised public comments leading up to the long-awaited announcement.
Mr. Bolden, a former astronaut who spent part of his NASA career at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, unwisely revealed his personal preferences when he told a Houston-area television reporter several weeks ahead of his April 12 announcement that if it were up to him, both Johnson and the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., would get one of the nation’s four remaining shuttle orbiters.
“If I were not the NASA administrator, I would say that places that should get an orbiter are Houston, the Cape — any place that played a vital role in the design, development and operation of the space shuttle,” Bolden told Houston’s KTRK-TV in March, validating the city’s claim to one of the U.S. space program’s most coveted artifacts.
The day before flying to Kennedy to announce where the orbiters would be put on public display, Mr. Bolden managed to further stoke Houston’s sense of entitlement; he also made a muddle of explaining a selection process that put a premium on the host institution’s accessibility and public engagement track record.
Appearing before the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee ostensibly to defend his agency’s budget request for the coming year, Mr. Bolden was subjected to a last-minute lobbying blitz by senators who believed — perhaps naively — that their home states were still in the running.
When pressed by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) for details on the “commission” tasked with deciding where the shuttles would go, Mr. Bolden — he was advised by a team of career civil servants, not an outside commission — split hairs and implied several times that the final decision was his alone and had yet to be made.
“If there is such a thing I don’t know about it, and I am going to make the decision probably when I get back over to my office this afternoon,” Mr. Bolden said. “So if I need to consult with them, somebody should tell me really quick.”
To anyone in the know, it had been clear for weeks, if not months, that California, Florida, New York and Washington would get an orbiter and that Texas — a state that has not voted for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976 — would be passed over.
Indeed, the Texas congressional delegation knew well before the formal announcement that Houston had a problem, writing President Barack Obama in March to lament “recent reports” indicating that Houston “is at or near the bottom of a short list … to host a public display of the space shuttle orbiter.”
When Texans learned Houston had been passed over, the reaction from the Lone Star state was as shrill as it was swift. Mr. Bolden, no doubt, got an earful as the congressional notifications were made ahead of his formal announcement.
The NASA administrator admitted as much when the crowd gathered at Kennedy for his announcement gave him a standing ovation upon hearing that the Space Shuttle Atlantis — NASA’s backdrop for his televised speech — would be retiring to Florida after returning from its final mission later this year.
“I guess I got something right today,” a visibly emotional Mr. Bolden confided in the crowd. “You have no idea what that applause does for me. It’s been a rough day.”
No doubt, but hardly what one would expect to hear from someone comfortable with the selections he purportedly made just the day before.
On the eve of the announcement, Mr. Bolden assured Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) “that every place receiving an orbiter has a historical connection to human spaceflight and in fact I think you will find that every one of them has a historical connection to the space shuttle.”
California built the orbiters, Florida launches them and Washington is both the nation’s capital and home to NASA headquarters. And New York?
In what regrettably has become common practice, Mr. Bolden made his scripted announcement and left it to others to field the inevitable questions. In this case, it was up to NASA’s associate administrator for strategic infrastructure, Olga Dominguez, to explain to a pack of reporters the public outreach considerations that helped seal New York’s bid for an orbiter to display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan. According to Ms. Dominguez, the USS Intrepid played a role in the water recovery of Gemini- and Mercury-era spacecraft and New York is home to the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a climate-change research lab headed by NASA’s most politically polarizing scientist, the outspoken James Hansen. The amount of tourist traffic passing through the Intrepid museum each year is good reason to retire an orbiter there, but as far as historical connections go, the ones cited by Ms. Dominguez are tenuous at best.
Houston and the Texas congressional delegation probably could have done more to land one of the orbiters; their case seems to have rested primarily on the city’s proximity to Johnson. But Mr. Bolden clearly could have done a better job of managing expectations, especially in the Lone Star State.