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An internal NASA scoring matrix showing how Seattle's Museum of Flight (MOF) stacked up against other contenders for the Space Shuttle orbiters. Source: NASA Office of Inspector General review of the Shuttle selection process.

Seattle’s Museum of Flight was among the top contenders this spring for a decommissioned Space Shuttle — placing well ahead of many other locations and just slightly below the eventual winners in NASA’s internal scoring matrix, according to data from a new report issued by the space agency’s Office of Inspector General.

Space Shuttle Atlantis lifts off. (NASA photo)

The biggest shortcoming: Our region doesn’t attract as many international visitors as the winning locations in New York, Los Angeles and Florida, according to the 2007 U.S. government data that was used to make that portion of the assessment. Seattle attracted about 406,000 overseas visitors, by those estimates, compared to millions of international visitors in the winning regions.

Seattle’s Museum of Flight also wasn’t able to rival the attendance of the chosen sites, and our region’s lower relative population didn’t help, either.

Losing out on a real Space Shuttle disappointed many people in the region, as well as the Museum of Flight — which constructed a new $12 million, 15,500 square foot gallery in anticipation of landing one of the retired Space Shuttles.

However, the Museum of Flight is getting what amounts to a consolation prize — a Full Fuselage Trainer. It’s a full-scale mockup of a shuttle orbiter, without wings, that was used in astronaut training.

Museum of Flight officials put a positive spin on the news when it was announced in April, pointing out that people will be able to walk through the trainer, unlike the actual Space Shuttles.

Officials and politicians in other losing locations. such as Ohio, weren’t quite as polite — expressing outrage at the decision and calling for an investigation.

That led to the NASA Inspector General’s review of the selection process, and the results were made public this past week.

The Full Fuselage Trainer, headed to Seattle

In fact, the investigation did find multiple errors by the agency’s staff. And one, if corrected, would have placed the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, in a three-way tie with two of the eventual winners — the Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum in New York, which is getting the Space Shuttle Enterprise; and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which is getting Atlantis.

That doesn’t exactly create a sense of confidence in the process. But NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (perhaps conveniently) assured the Inspector General’s Office that he would have made the same decision even if he had known of the tie, because he believes “the chosen locations will best serve NASA’s goal to spur interest in science, technology, and space exploration,” according to the report.

Overall, the report concludes that the selection process was conducted in good faith.

We found no evidence that the Team’s recommendation or the Administrator’s decision were tainted by political influence or any other improper consideration. While the Administrator was subject to a great deal of pressure from members of Congress and other interested parties, we found no evidence that this pressure had any influence on the Administrator’s ultimate decision on where to place the Orbiters. Moreover, we found no attempt by White House officials to direct or influence Bolden’s decision making. We also found that NASA’s process was consistent with applicable Federal law.

The National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., was effectively guaranteed a Space Shuttle (Discovery) and wasn’t included in the scoring matrix. The California Science Center in L.A. is getting the Space Shuttle Endeavour.

Read the full Inspector General’s report here: PDF, 26 pages

Thanks to Isaac Alexander for his help. Follow his Jet City Star Twitter feed for aerospace news.

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