Spaceflight Now

Shuttle Atlantis lifted, tilted in museum home

Posted: November 29, 2012

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It is a space shuttle orbiter like you've never seen before -- wrapped in a plastic cocoon, perched atop pedestals and tilted at a steep angle -- while construction crews finish building a massive exhibit hall around the spaceship.

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The site is the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and the star of the new $100 million, privately-financed attraction is Atlantis. The museum, dedicated to telling the story of the 30-year shuttle program, is set for a grand opening to the world next July.

News media members got to the tour the construction zone Thursday, where engineers have successfully gotten Atlantis maneuvered into her final display orientation after several weeks of delicate operations.

"She is very comfortable and we're very confident she's in a great position," said Tim Macy, the Visitor Complex's director of project development.

"It's a good feeling to know that it's where it's supposed to be, that it's in place and we can take a little bit of a deep breath."

Now secure atop beefy support columns and rolled at a 43.21-degree angle, the 152,700-pound spacecraft will sit patiently for the next several months while the interior of the facility is decked out with 62 exhibits, many of them hands-on experiences, plus a full-size replica of the Hubble Space Telescope that spans the first and second floors, an International Space Station presentation, a memorial area for remembrance, a small theater and even the gaseous oxygen vent hood taken from the old shuttle launch pad 39B.

Atlantis is wrapped with the protective covering to keep dirt and debris off the vehicle while construction continues around her. It will be removed in March and the payload bay doors opened in April, a four-to-five-day process, Macy said, as the 60-foot-long clamshell doors get swung open and then supported with tiny wires dropped from the ceiling above.

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The open side of the building where the orbiter rolled in now has its skeletal frame in place and should be fully erected by mid-December, allowing the air conditioning system to be started up. A dehumidifier will extract water from the air for reuse flushing the toilets and rainwater collected from the roof will be recycled for irrigation around the complex.

What's more, that wall will support a 125 by 40 foot LED television to show Earth's horizon and scenes behind the orbiter as the public walks around Atlantis.

The ship arrived aboard a 76-wheel, V12 transporter, trekking 9.8 miles from the Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC's Complex 39 to the Visitor Complex on Nov. 2. Following green lines painted on freshly-laid asphalt, motorized hauler shimmied into the building to park Atlantis in her final resting place.

Atlantis flew into space 33 times, traveling 125,935,769 miles and covering 4,848 orbits during 307 days aloft.

Although countless other lifting operations performed on the space shuttles over the decades used cranes to pick up and hoist the craft, the preferred method for raising Atlantis this month has been using jacks to heave the vehicle upwards from below.

A pair of leveling jacks borrowed from the craft's hangar were engaged on either side of the nose and raised the front of Atlantis off the transporter. The landing gear was deployed and the transporter lowered so that the aft wheels could touch the ground, allowing the trailer-like hauler to drop off the orbiter and drive away.

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Then came the attachment of lifting beams onto the orbiter, connecting under the nose and in the aft using the same points that mounted Atlantis to the external fuel tanks for the ride to space and the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft for piggyback trips.

In fact, the aft connecting hardware was removed from one of the 747s, painted black and affixed to the beam. "We know they work," Macy said.

Working with Beyel Brothers Crane and Rigging, teams practiced the Atlantis lifting operations using a purpose-built mockup earlier this fall in Cocoa, spending time raising and tilting a rig filled with 130,000 pounds of concrete to mimic the weight of the shuttle. They used the same beams and columns in the test that's now become part of Atlantis.

Once the ship was removed from the transporter and those beams bolted in place, the jacking operations commenced to get the orbiter's weight off of the rear landing gear tires. The wheel assemblies were removed from the shuttle for eventual display and residual hydraulic fluid drained from the lines before the gear was retracted and the doors closed for good, Macy explained.

On three subsequent nights, workers wrapped the shuttle with the same thick plastic material you might see around boats being shipped down the highway. They first used leaf blowers to dust off Atlantis before 16,000 square feet of the wrap enveloped the vehicle to keep dirt from coming in contact with the spacecraft over the next few months.

Humidity sensors deployed under the plastic will alert officials if the need arises to cut small slits into the wrapping so fresh air can be pumped in.

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With a girder-like frame contraption in place between the forward and aft beams, it was time to start raising Atlantis up. A series of 10-inch, 100-ton jacks were used to get the shuttle high enough to put four larger-scale jacks in each corner to push the orbiter until it was 36 feet off the ground, said Steve Sergis, vice president with Ivey's Construction Inc. that is working the project for KSCVC.

The local firm is no stranger to handling space projects, having performed numerous jobs on the shuttle pads and Vehicle Assembly Building, plus construction of the Atlas 5 rocket's integration facility at Complex 41 and modifications to the west coast site at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Working alongside on the Atlantis effort is the Beyel Bros. firm, which supplied six 800-ton jacks, support stands, man lifts, forklifts and cranes for the facility. Beyel also worked on the 1990s project to move the Saturn 5 rocket from its outdoor display site in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building to its sprawling indoor home.

Two-and-a-half days were spent tilting Atlantis exactly 43.21 degrees to port, rolling the craft to the intended display scene simulating the shuttle still in orbit, departing the International Space Station.

The left-side jacks were lowered and the right-side jacks were raised as the entire frame contraption rotated. The end result put the port wing just 7.5 feet off the ground.

"We'll build something around the base of it so you won't be able to touch (the port wing), obviously," Macy said.

The nose of Atlantis is 26.5 feet up.

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Measurements of the loads and jack pressures were on the mark throughout the operation, Sergis said, in comparison to the practice runs with the mockup.

The support columns -- one in the front and one in the aft -- then got erected and structurally mated to the cross beams to serve as the permanent pedestals for Atlantis. They are welded to cement anchors in the floor, Macy said.

Work left to be accomplished includes cutting off the excess length of the beams, detaching support struts leaning against the pedestals and removing the underside frame structure that's no longer needed.

"It's going to be a lot lighter in terms of how it looks," Macy said.

"There are four or five points in this project when you can take a deep breath and feel good about it. One was when it's at 43 degrees, and as soon as they remove these support (struts) and we clip off the ends of the beams by about next Wednesday, that will be another time to take a deep breath because I think we'll be in good shape."