This past week the Space Shuttle Discovery was flown to near Washington, D.C. for its new permanent home, the Udvar-Hazy annex of the Air and Space Museum. The Enterprise, the first shuttle (which did not fly in space) is currently at the Udvar-Hazy, and will be flown shortly to New York City, where it will reside near the U.S.S. Intrepid. The other remaining shuttles will reside near Los Angeles (Endeavour) and at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida (Atlantis). It won’t be until early next year when all four shuttles will be in their new homes.
As this gallery from The Atlantic demonstrates, decommissioning a vessel, especially one that routinely burned lots and lots of toxic fuel, is no small feat. The engines are being replaced, and in the case of most of the shuttles, mission specific hardware has been removed and stored. Additionally, several facilities responsible for certain aspects of shuttle missions, have been closed as well.
So, whenever (or even if) a new transportation system is established for the U.S. to launch its own vessels into space, there will have to be some kind of infrastructure investments as well as the spending needed for that next-generation spacecraft. This isn’t terribly different from when urban rail (streetcars) fell into decline as the automobile rose to dominance. Trains, tracks and supporting facilities were all removed from active use. As people returned to rail for public transportation uses, decades-gone infrastructure had to be restored, if not recreated.
But what are the options? If it’s not going to be used for the foreseeable future, is the cost to maintain it justified? Usually not. Regardless, that cost should be accounted in whatever calculations go into choosing to build, and to end, large technical systems.