NASA Slashes Price for Used Space Shuttles; Assembly Required

NASA has slashed the price of its fleet of space shuttles, hoping to spur more demand for the iconic ships, which are set to be sold this fall when they are formally mothballed in favor of newer spacecraft. The agency had originally hoped to fetch $42 million apiece for the 30-year-old ships, but after receiving only paltry expressions of interest, it has reduced the price to $28.8 million. What's more, NASA will throw in a used shuttle engine -- for free.After NASA announced in December 2008 that the shuttles were to be sold, the agency received about 20 inquiries. After reducing the price, the agency hopes to gin up more interest. "We're confident that we'll get other takers," NASA spokesperson Mike Currie told the Associated Press. The shuttle sale is geared toward museums, universities, and other educational institutions.

Buy A Shuttle, Get An Engine For Free

Although the Discovery has been promised to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the Atlantis and the Endeavor are for sale. The Enterprise, a test craft that never flew a space mission, may also go on the block.

Once sold, the shuttles will be delivered on the back of a 747 from the Kennedy Space Center to the major airport of your choice, where you will take delivery. What you do next is your problem. One idea would be to attempt to refurbish the main shuttle engines -- which the agency will throw in with your purchase for just the cost of transportation. The agency had been hoping to fetch between $400,000 and $800,000 for the engines, but apparently there isn't much of a market these days for used space shuttle motors.

By the time the shuttles are retired this fall, they will have flown over 130 missions since their introduction in 1982. The shuttle program's history has seen remarkable achievements, from launching key satellites to helping build the International Space Station and Hubble Telescope. But the program has also been riven by tragedy, losing two ships, the Challenger and the Columbia, mid-mission.

In many ways, the glamor of a federal space program -- astronauts were once idolized in this country like Hollywood stars -- has abated in the wake of disasters, cost overruns, and questions about NASA's overall mission. With so much to be fixed on Earth, critics of the space program wonder why the U.S. spends billions on seemingly quixotic missions with decreasing value to humanity.

Constellation Project Aims For The Moon, Maybe Mars

Supporters of the space program argue that exploration is a fundamental part of America's identity, and the science behind the program has yielded numerous tangible benefits to society, from something as mundane to the cordless drill to the most sophisticated aeronautical and communications technology.

NASA is making a big push to move beyond the shuttles, which were developed in the 1970s, but really came to be associated with the Reagan 80s. The agency's new program is called Constellation, and aims to send astronauts back to the moon, as well as possibly even to Mars.

The project, which has already cost nearly $10 billion and won't be up and running until 2015 at the earliest, calls for the construction of several new spacecraft, including the Orion crew module and the Ares I and Ares V booster rockets. The Ares V will be capable of carrying a payload of nearly 190 tons into Low Earth Orbit, substantially more than the shuttle's payload of 24.4 tons.

Space exploration has always been costly and the subject of intense debate. Constellation is no different and critics of the program have charged that it's too expensive, among other beefs. A number of alternatives have been suggested, and Congress may even delay the space shuttle program's retirement. But for now, the final mission is set for Sept. 16, 2010, when the Discovery will be the last space shuttle to blast into space.

Unless, of course, the shuttle's buyer can jump-start one of those engines. Interested parties have until Feb. 19 to register with NASA.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the shuttles involved in tragic accidents. They were Challenger and Columbia, not Challenger and Discovery.
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