On Saturday, April 20, we were at the Kennedy Space Center to celebrate the latest inductions to the Astronaut Hall of Fame. The same day, media representatives were invited to tour the construction site that is now home to Space Shuttle Atlantis.
This $100 million project will showcase not only the orbiter itself, but will tell the story of the entire shuttle program, the people and jobs that served behind the program to make it such a success, the role it played in building the International Space Station as well as the launch and upkeep of the Hubble Space Telescope, and how the shuttle program has paved the way for future space exploration.
Atlantis, the last shuttle to fly in space, made her final trip to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center in November of 2012, and crews have been working since that time to get the orbiter into position and ready for the grand opening this summer. With the opening of this exhibit, visitors to the KSC will be able to experience the space shuttle “in-flight” – appearing much as she did when orbiting in space.
Atlantis has been raised 30 feet off of the ground and rotated 43 degrees, and will have the payload bay doors open, giving it the appearance of space flight. Visitors will be able to walk around the orbiter and because of the way she is displayed, will feel as though they can reach out and touch Atlantis from the balcony surrounding the centerpiece. Theatrical lighting and dramatic video will enhance the feeling of being in space, and various hands-on exhibits in the balcony will let guests “look” inside the shuttle to see the crew compartment, cockpit, and other details.
Although Atlantis is the obvious focus of this exhibit, there will be a variety of other activities and things to see, including a full-scale model of the Hubble Space Telescope. Downstairs, the actual beanie cap (which vents gases away from the external tank before launch, and prevents ice from forming) from Launch Pad 39-B is on display, and there will be lots of hands-on opportunities for visitors to learn about the past, present and future of the U.S. space program.
Outside the building, visitors will enter between 2 full-scale replicas of the solid rocket boosters and underneath the orange external tank, with the base of the tank a full 24 feet above them. Overall, the boosters and tank assembly will reach over 185 feet into the air, and will be easily visible to people driving towards the Visitor Center. During the recent hard hat tour, one of the boosters was almost complete, and the second one was being stacked by cranes at the construction site.
Inside, Atlantis was still in protective plastic shrink wrap, designed to keep the construction dust out of the orbiter. Thursday, April 25, that plastic was removed. Beginning in May, the payload bay doors will be opened (a meticulous three-week process) and the Canadarm robotic arm mockup will be extended into place within the exhibit. The painstaking process of rotating the shuttle into its current 43 degree in-flight position took weeks to achieve, with movements of only about half of an inch at a time.
The Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit is scheduled to open to the public at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center on June 29, 2013. Although there were no specific plans given during the recent tour, there will certainly be festivities and celebrations around the grand opening this summer, so be sure to check back here for more details once they are released.
[Photos courtesy of Kirk Garreans for CitySurfing Orlando]