Since the space shuttle program was decommissioned in July 2011, the three remaining orbiters, Atlantis, Endeavour and Discovery, have been relocated to their now permanent homes. Endeavour went to the California Science Center, Discovery is at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., and last but not least, Atlantis came home to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Atlantis’s new home, under construction since January 2012, finally opened to the public June 29, 2013. The time and the effort put into this exhibit is definitely noticeable. After all, it is nothing short of a complicated feat to lift a 165,000-pound shuttle, tilt it 43 degrees, open its payload doors and mount everything permanently for the public to view. The shuttle is mounted that way in order to mimic the orbiter flying in space getting ready to dock to the International Space Station (ISS). The exhibit also has a one-to-one scale replica of the Hubble telescope, and a small replica of the International Space Station fashioned into a sort of jungle gym for kids to explore and learn about the different modules of the ISS. Outside the exhibit, there is also an impressive one-to-one scale replica of the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters. It’s pretty hard to miss Atlantis’ new home with that giant stack sitting outside of it.
The first time I met the legend myself was when I worked the Lunabotics competition for my NASA internship. The exhibit was still under construction, so the group had to wear construction helmets and bright vests for safety. The external fuel tank was still missing at that time and the walls of the exhibit were just getting their first coat of paint. The only part of the exhibit that was finished was the shuttle. To stay out of the way of any construction workers, we went through a few back doors to see the shuttle.
When I first laid eyes on Atlantis, I must admit, I got chills. It was such a rush being able to see the orbiter so incredibly close—it was majestic, powerful and just downright incredible. It was so cool to literally stand next to a big piece of history, knowing that said piece had been carrying life safely to space and back multiple times. After a whole bunch of photographs, the group left, but I made sure to return to see the exhibit in order to see the fully finished product.
The week before the public opening, there was an employee pre-screening of the exhibit. This was my chance to see all the added details that would turn this into an interactive and entertaining exhibit. After walking underneath the stack and through the doors of the building, there is a “pre-screening” room where a video plays the history of how the shuttle was designed, how it went from a concept to a refined project and the obstacles the engineers faced in designing, creating and building the shuttle. Afterwards, you go into another room, where a different movie is shown. This one is a compilation of real footage of various takeoffs, landings, mission footage, astronauts inside of the shuttle and so on. This all leads up to the big reveal of the shuttle itself.
The videos are really well done overall and they do an excellent job at relaying the emotions involved with the shuttle including the excitement and fear of a launch, the beauty of space and the wonder of it all. I was seriously overwhelmed with emotions and teared up even though I had already seen Atlantis before. It is a one-of-a-kind exhibit that houses such an extraordinary legend.