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Originally published March 2, 2011 at 7:24 PM | Page modified March 3, 2011 at 2:59 PM

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Laying groundwork for Space Gallery of the Museum of Flight

The steel framework for the huge glass front wall of the Space Gallery of the Museum of Flight went up Wednesday. Museum officials hope the building will someday house a retired space shuttle.

Seattle Times staff reporter

More information

Museum of Flight and efforts to bring a space shuttle to Seattle: www.museumofflight.org

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Drivers along East Marginal Way South Tuesday morning couldn't help but shoot a glance just west of the roadway, where a 140-foot crane lifted two massive sections of a white steel framework into place, each piece 40 feet tall and weighing roughly 12 tons.

Some passing motorists might have noticed the handful of news cameras on hand and wondered exactly what this building will hold.

Fact is, neither the Sellen Construction crews nor the building's owners know for sure.

The $12 million project is the Space Gallery of the Museum of Flight, and if museum supporters are successful, this gallery will eventually house one of America's four retiring space shuttles, after NASA concludes its space-shuttle program later this year.

"We think we've met all the requirements," said Doug King, Museum of Flight president and CEO. "We just hope we get a favorable decision."

The framework erected Tuesday will support a glass façade 40 feet tall and 105 feet wide, facing the street. If a 122-foot-long shuttle is parked face-front behind that glass, it may almost appear to be waiting to merge into traffic.

An enclosed, climate-controlled space for the shuttle is one of the key requirements NASA set for potential shuttle recipients.

King said the Space Gallery, across the street from the Museum of Flight main building, was in the works even before NASA invited museums to apply for a space shuttle, and will proceed with or without the shuttle.

Among its attractions will be a shuttle trainer, which visitors will be able to go inside to see how and where crews learned shuttle operation. The museum's other space-era artifacts include moon rocks, an Apollo space capsule and a Martian lander.

A space shuttle would be the exhibit's crowning jewel, King said. But the competition is stiff.

NASA has only four shuttles, and Discovery, currently on a mission in space, has been offered to the Smithsonian Institution.

That leaves three shuttles up for grabs, with proposals from 27 museums across the country, according to a NASA spokeswoman. She would not discuss the specific proposals and said no timetable for the decision has been set. A decision isn't expected until after the shuttle program ends.

Among the locations reported to be seeking shuttles are some with historic ties to the shuttle program, such as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

California's Palmdale Plant 42, original assembly site for the shuttles, also wants one. So do an assortment of museums with less obvious ties to shuttle history, such as the Evergreen Air and Space Museum in McMinnville, Ore., perhaps best known as the home of Howard Hughes' immense flying boat, the Spruce Goose.

Backers of Seattle's bid to host a shuttle emphasize the area's rich aerospace history, the strong and growing educational programs promoted by the Museum of Flight, the fact that more than 26 astronauts have Northwest ties, and the fact that the Seattle area produced Boeing 747s, the craft used to transport space shuttles.

Last summer, former astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, who grew up in the Yakima Valley, resigned her post as the museum's CEO to lead Wings Over Washington, a museum affiliate focused on education initiatives and on bringing a space shuttle to Washington.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

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