By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA is set to announce on Tuesday final museum berths for its retiring space shuttles, whose mothballing this year will hand over human space transportation to former arch-rival Russia 50 years after the first human space flight.
Space and flight museums across the United States have applied to display the shuttles, due to make two more flights this year before the shuttle program is ended.
The announcement of the shuttles' final resting places will be made by NASA administrator Charlie Bolden at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight. Tuesday also marks the 50th anniversary of the pioneering launch in the then Soviet Union of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.
The shuttles to be allocated are Endeavour, now at the launch pad for liftoff on April 29 for its final mission, and Atlantis, being prepared for the 30-year-old shuttle program's 135th and final flight this summer. A third shuttle, Discovery, completed its final mission last month.
Among the institutions hoping to receive the spacecraft are the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center in Florida, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, Houston's Johnson Space Center, which is NASA's human spaceflight base. and the Museum of Flight in Seattle, the former headquarters of shuttle builder Boeing.
With the shuttles' retirement, NASA turns over the job of transporting astronauts to the International Space Station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations, to Russia, once the United States' arch rival in the Cold War space race.
U.S. dependence on Russian space transportation will end only if commercial companies develop passenger spaceships.
A handful, including Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies, Orbital Sciences Corp., Sierra Nevada Corp., and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, are trying.
NASA'S NEXT FRONTIER: EXPLORATION
"This is a necessary step that we had to take so that we can go on to do the next step," NASA astronaut Ron Garan said recently from aboard the orbiting space station.
"Our goal is to get out of the business of low-Earth orbit, turn that over to the commercial enterprises, and to get on to what NASA and the other government agencies are really designed for -- and that's exploration."
Rather than spending $4 billion to $5 billion a year to fly the shuttles, the United States plans to develop spaceships that can travel beyond the station's 220 mile-high orbit, where the shuttles cannot go.
"I'm all in favor of turning over low-Earth orbit to commercial providers as soon as they're ready, both cargo and crew. My concern is that they're not ready yet," said Michael Coats, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"I'm a little bit frustrated because I think the rest of the world looks to us, especially in space, for leadership. I hope we can continue to maintain a leadership position. I think it's very important geopolitically to do that," Coats added.
Russia will be well-compensated for the transportation work. Rides to the space station, which now cost NASA about $51 million per person, increase to $56 million in 2013 and are set to jump to $63 million in 2014.
The United States has relied on Russian transportation before, most recently when NASA grounded the shuttle fleet for repairs after the fatal 2003 Columbia accident.
In the mid-1990s, it was Washington that supported Russia's troubled Mir space station after the Soviet Union's breakup.
The partnership evolved out of what was once heated U.S.-Soviet competition, fanned by Gagarin's flight.
"Fifty years ago, when that first step into space was taken, it was basically an antagonistic competition between two nations," said Garan, who is living aboard the space station with another American, three Russian cosmonauts and a European Space Agency astronaut.
"I think that's the legacy that the space program brings -- it brings people together," Garan said.
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Jerry Norton)