Like many older folks, the Space Shuttle Atlantis moved to Florida after being forcibly retired after 30 years of loyal service. Having completed 33 NASA space missions in its career, Atlantis has a new home and will have l-o-t-s of visitors.
The Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit opened June 2013 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida. At the robust cost of $100 million (not counting the value of the shuttle orbiter itself), the attraction and five story building housing it is fascinating, captivating and well worth seeing. The 90,000 square-foot building is a highlight of any visit to the Kennedy Space Center. Unlike the theme parks in nearby Orlando, Fla., this attraction is real and part of the nation’s history and legacy.
The three other retired space shuttles — Washington, D.C.’s National Air and Space Museum, Los Angeles’ California Science Center, and New York’s Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum — sit in a flat horizontal position. Atlantis has been raised 30 feet (9 meters) into the air and angled 45 degrees to the side. Atlantis’ payload bay is open and one of the Canadarm robitic arms is extended, the positioning designed to give the illusion of seeing the orbiter while it was still in flight. A dynamic static image, if you will.
You enter the Atlantis exhibit through a 184-foot-tall (56 m) replica of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and external tank (the ones whose malfunction caused the Challenger tragedy), their size giving you some idea of the scale of the Shuttle which was much larger than I thought it would be. As you walk into the exhibit, you walk up a ramp with interesting murals and photos of the Shuttle, and quotes from various personal worked on the Shuttle program.
At the top of the ramp, visitors enter the first of a series of theaters that introduce and build an appreciation for the shuttle’s history. With the completion of the final video, the projection screen becomes transparent to show you the nose of the Atlantis Orbiter just a few meters ahead of you. This is definitely why you came and you’ll have plenty of time to walk around, behind and underneath Atlantis, and also to enjoy the many special exhibits in its auditorium. You are, of course, not allowed to enter the shuttle itself but there’s a partial mock-up you can get in.
Besides seeing the shuttle, a highlight for me was a full-size detailed replica of the Hubble Space Telescope and a space-walking astronaut. Integrated into the exhibit hall is the Shuttle Launch Experience, a motion simulator (opened in 2007) that gives you a simulation of the experience of a liftoff and ascent into space.
Atlantis was the fourth (and the next-to-the-last) Space Shuttle to be constructed by Rockwell in Southern California. It was delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in April 1985. The last mission of Atlantis (STS-135) was also the last flight of the Shuttle program. In its many missions it launched interplanetary probes, satellites, repaired the Hubble Space Telescope, brought supplies to build and outfit the International Space Station and Mir Space Station. By the end of its final mission, Atlantis had orbited the Earth almost 5000 times, traveling nearly 126,000,000 mi (203,000,000 km) in space or more than 525 times the distance from the Earth to the moon.
For anyone interested in space travel, this is a destination worth traveling some distance to see.
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