Spaceflight Now

Fourth space shuttle retirement home opens

Posted: June 29, 2013

Two years after the final space shuttle launch, the sentimental sendoff to put the retired orbiters on public display around the country was finished Saturday with the opening of the extravagant Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex attraction showcasing Atlantis.

Credit: Walter Scriptunas II/Spaceflight Now
The $100 million, privately-financed facility constructed in the past 18 months presents Atlantis like no other shuttle retirement home, her payload bay doors open and the ship tilted 43.21 degrees to simulate flying in orbit.

It's a spacecraft spectacle that only astronauts have seen during spacewalks or gazing out the windows of the International Space Station or Russian space station Mir.

But tourists now can see the veteran shuttle, which logged 33 flights, 125,935,769 miles and 4,848 orbits during 307 days spent aloft, at the Visitor Complex as part of standard admission.

The Atlantis facility is the final site one to open. Discovery went on public display in April 2012 as part of the national archive at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Northern Virginia. Prototype shuttle Enterprise arrived at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City last June. Endeavour pulled into the California Science Center in Los Angeles in October.

Atlantis appears as if she's still soaring, with a giant LED television screen hanging behind the orbiter to display stirring views of Earth, dancing auroras and an orbital sunrise.

The theatrical lighting system in the building is synched with the movie, casting the orbiter is blues and purple hues as dawn breaks.

"Atlantis is power and grace personified," said Mike Konzen, chief operating officer of PGAV Destinations that helped develop the experience.

Guests are greeted by a 184-foot-tall replica of the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters standing at the entrance. Walking directly under the stack, you can look up at the high-fidelity display that is complete with the smallest of details.

Credit: Walter Scriptunas II/Spaceflight Now
Once inside, a pre-show recreates the development of the space shuttle from concept to launch pad. Doors then open to walk into another theater that plays Columbia's thunderous launch of the program's maiden mission, then runs through in-space activities, bringing the shuttle back, turning the reusable vehicle around to launch it yet again.

Then, the dramatic reveal occurs as you get the first glimpse of Atlantis, coming nose-to-nose with the shuttle that flew the program's final mission in July 2011.

"It is awesome! It is spectacular," said Bob Cabana, a four-flight shuttle astronaut who now serves as director of the Kennedy Space Center. "We showcase Atlantis, but it tells the 30-year history of the shuttle program and the amazing team that made it all happen. I think we display Atlantis like no other orbiter, and folks are going to get to see it as only a very few have on orbit. It truly looks as if it's flying in space."

Elsewhere, a special theater adjoins a life-like Hubble Space Telescope among nearly 60 interactive displays throughout the 90,000-square-foot building. An International Space Station area has a mockup of the outpost's toilet and treadmill named for television comedian Stephen Colbert.

There is a steep slide that mimics the re-entry slope of a returning shuttle. Nearby is the gaseous oxygen vent hood – or "beanie cap" – removed from launch pad 39B. And two tires removed from Atlantis from her final landing are there to see and touch.

Several simulators are located around the attraction to maneuver a shuttle inside the Vehicle Assembly Building for mating to its external fuel tank, plus others to operate the robot arm, dock to the International Space Station or try your hand at landing.

Credit: Walter Scriptunas II/Spaceflight Now
And the "Forever Remembered" wall allows guests to pay their respects to the lost crews of Challenger and Columbia.

"This completely immersive experience is about much more than seeing Atlantis close up. With hi-fi replicas, simulators and interactive activities touching on all aspects of the shuttle program and its accomplishments, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station, it's the closest guests can get to living and working in space – short of applying to the astronaut corps," said Bill Moore, chief operating officer of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.