The Museum of Flight didn't get a real Space Shuttle, but it was granted a shuttle trainer. Now that the disappointment is over. The museum thinks it might have gotten a better deal.
The trainer is the same size as the shuttle. It has all the bells and whistles inside. It just never went into space, and the outside is made out of wood, not high tech metal and heat shields.
But if you can get passed the fact that it never went into space, you might come around to how Museum of Flight President Doug King thinks.
"In the long run, I'm absolutely believing that we got something better," he said standing in the shadow of the 120-foot long trainer.
This full-scale trainer differs from the four real orbiters in one other significant way too. You can touch this one. You can crawl inside this one. You can experience this one. You can feel the claustrophobia-causing cramped quarters and get a real sense of what the astronauts were experiencing.
The real shuttles are behind velvet ropes. That's why King believes his museum got a better deal. This exhibit is more than looking in awe. It is experiencing space flight the same way every shuttle astronaut prepared for their missions, on this trainer.
"It's pretty darn authentic, isn't it," King asked me after I crawled around inside the crew compartment. The living, working and sleeping area is only 100 square-feet. The crew deck is cramped, even with two seats now removed. The highlight for me was turning around and looking out the two small windows into the payload bay. With a satellite hanging above, it feels like the real deal. You can put your hands on the same controls every shuttle astronaut used to practice their delicate in-space maneuvers.
"This is where they trained," King said. "This is where they practiced before they went to space, everything from egress training to moving big payloads around. They spent a lot more hours in this than they did in space."
The controls are scratched. The panels bear all the marks of 30 years worth of practice and training. Once inside, you lose all reference that this thing never went into space. It certainly feels real.
And don't forget, the Museum of Flight's mission is to teach people about flight. It hopes this hands on exhibit will spur the next generation of astronauts and big dreamers.
"The first excitement is let's go inside," King said. "The second excitement is what do we learn from this that inspires that next generation that writes the next 50 years of history."
But if you want to get inside the crew compartment it's going to cost you. It's not included in the admission fee to the exhibit. You have to pay at least another $25 per person to get that inside experience. So the full shuttle trainer experience will run most adults just under $50. Museum members get a little price break.
The exhibit features more than just the shuttle too. You can try and land the shuttle in an interactive display.
You can also see the future of space flight, including for-profit space flight. The Russian Soyuz Capsule that Charles Simonyi took into space is also on display.
And I would be remiss, if I didn't mention the most popular item of the entire exhibit: the shuttle toilet. That's the number one question everyone asks. "Where did the astronauts go to the bathroom?" You can sit on one outside the trainer and get a feel for it. You can also compare it to the Soyuz version. I think you'll choose the shuttle.