Spaceflight Now

Form-fitting plastic cover removed from Atlantis

Posted: April 26, 2013

The space shuttle Atlantis, now a museum piece at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, has emerged from the protective plastic cocoon that had encased the spacecraft since November.

Credit: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now
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Cutting away strips at a time to reveal the nose and windows, then the tail and main engines before breaking for the day Thursday, workers resumed the process Friday morning to fully reveal the retired orbiter in preparation for opening the public display June 29.

"It's going to be so inspirational to the people who come here to see Atlantis," said Eileen Collins, the first woman space shuttle pilot and commander and a veteran Atlantis flier. "I hope you spread the word and get your friends to come down and visit."

The shuttle tribute is the centerpiece of a $100 million revitalization project at KSC's privately-operated museum, and after months of work tourists will soon get their chance to see the new attraction.

Departing the operational facilities at KSC's Launch Complex 39 at daybreak Nov. 2, Atlantis was hauled along a 9.8-mile route to the visitor center to enter the special-built exhibit hall at nightfall after a welcoming ceremony complete with fireworks.

While construction of the 90,000-square-foot building to showcase the shuttle has continued ever since, workers took the precautionary step to cover Atlantis with a thick plastic shrink wrap material to keep dirt, dust and debris off of the ship's delicate blankets and tiles.

Through the waning weeks of 2012, the shuttle was lifted off of its trailer-like transporter, enveloped in the plastic shielding, painstakingly jacked and tilted high above the floor for displaying in a fashion to simulate still being in orbit and the back wall that had been left open as a doorway was erected behind Atlantis.

"The day before we built the building, we said 'wow, this is big building! 90,000 square feet, 116 feet (tall) at the back, 55 in the front.' As soon as she pulled in, the first thought was 'whew, this is a small building'" quipped Tim Macy, KSCVC's director of project development.

But with the assembly work now winding down, the facility purged to collect as much dirt as possible and the plastic covering on Atlantis "swiffered" to wipe away the dust, it was time to unwrap the spacecraft.

Early Thursday, the long-anticipated first glimpse of the shuttle on its display pedestals, angled at 43.21 degrees, finally started coming into view.

"This is the very first step in unveiling Atlantis. She has been in a plastic 16-millimeter-thick cocoon," said Macy.

"It was for her own protection. With all the construction dust and overspray and everything else that is happening here, it kept her protected in a nice shrink-wrapped sealed environment."

The removal spread across two days as workers moved slowly and deliberately to avoid bringing any harm to the ship. And with applause and a sigh of relief, the final piece was pulled clear of the starboard wingtip at 10:59 a.m. Friday.

Credit: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now
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The next milestone will be a long one, as the 60-foot-long payload bay doors of the space shuttle are swung open and suspended in place using small wires secured to railings in the ceiling. The process is expected to take most of May to accomplish.

"We're a little nervous about that, only because it's never been done like this before," Macy said. "But if the payload bay doors open like the rollover happened and the lift and the tilt, I'm very confident, very confident."

A "handful" of veteran United Space Alliance shuttle technicians will be there for the work along with engineers from the Ivey firm that developed much of the technical aspects for the visitor center.

The opening will rely on the bright yellow, modified versions of the "strongback" structures atop the doors.

"We'll put really interesting C-clamps on top of those and then pull them up with a dolly system that we've already installed in the ceiling. This dolly is actually a motorized trolly that will pull apart, and when it does that the C-clamps rotate to allow the door to open up all the way," Macy explained.

"Then, we will take very, very small cables, eight of them across, up into the ceiling (to hold the doors). You'll not even be able to see those cables. They take the weight off the hinges and distributes it along those eight cables. Then the strongbacks come off the bottom and we're ready to go!"

Meanwhile, assembly is progressing on the replica solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank "stack" that will greet tourists at the entrance of the Atlantis building. Mating of the boosters segments is nearly finished and work begins soon to piece together the four sections of the tank.

"We'll stick-build the inside, the frame itself, then take these huge panels, rounded panels, and put them together on the frame. It is a combination of fiberglass and steel," Macy said.

The final piece of plastic was removed Friday from the starboard wing. Credit: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now
The Atlantis hall, with a large theater and more than 60 displays, will tell the story of the entire space shuttle program and its 135 flights that stretched across three decades.

"It will remind us of the great successes of the shuttle program beginning with the test flights, the satellite deploys and retrievals, the Spacelab and Spacehab missions, the Hubble missions, the Mir program that established a very good relationship with our former Cold War enemies, and also with our international partners we built the space station, serviced it," Collins said.

"We learned what to do right with the design of spacecraft and operations, and we learned what we did wrong, and as we press forward, improve that into better designs as we build the next generation."