The space shuttle Atlantis was on public display at the Kennedy Space Center visitors complex last Saturday. The shuttle is the centerpiece of a $100 million facility designed to show off Atlantis as it appeared in space, with its payload bay doors open.
Mounted more than three stories above the main floor and tilted 43 degrees to one side, the shuttle can be viewed from below, giving visitors a look at the shuttle’s black heat shield tiles and sweeping wings, or from a balcony level that extends almost into the open payload bay.
“It is awesome! It is spectacular,” said Bob Cabana, a four-flight shuttle veteran 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.”
For former shuttle workers and astronauts, the display showcases one of America’s greatest technological triumphs, giving the public a chance to see an orbiter from a perspective few were able to enjoy when the ships were flying to and from low-Earth orbit.
“This is an unparalleled experience,” Tom Jones, a former shuttle astronaut who made four trips to space, told CBS News during a pre-opening walk through. “Here is the whole shuttle story, wrapped up in some history, you get eye poppingly close to the real space shuttle machine and then you go experience it yourself (in a shuttle simulator ride).”
More than 60 interactive exhibits are part of the display, including a full-scale mockup of the Hubble Space Telescope, shuttle landing simulators, a shuttle main engine, space station docking simulators and a station mockup designed for kids.
“It’s got all the angles covered, and I think it’s going to be a tremendously successful experience, educational and inspirational,” Jones said.
But the display also prompts sadness among former shuttle workers, who see Atlantis and its sister ships, Discovery and Endeavour, as viable, state-of-the-art manned spacecraft that were retired before their time, with no replacement vehicle waiting in the wings to take over.
“I was sort of hoping this interval between the shuttle retiring and the next vehicle would just be a couple of years,” Jones said. “But the budget just hasn’t shown up, and I think it’s one of the great missteps of our nation in space this decade, to let this slide on to 2016, 2017, 2018. We can do better. We should.”
Atlantis completed NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission with a landing at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011. The shuttle spent more than a full year in space during its 33 missions, logging 125,935,769 miles over 4,848 orbits.