CAPE CANAVERAL -- Accompanied by astronauts and shuttle workers, Atlantis made a slow, solemn journey to retirement Friday, the last space shuttle to orbit the world and the last to leave NASA’s nest.
Atlantis emerged just before dawn from the massive Vehicle Assembly Building and, riding atop a 76-wheeled platform, began the 10-mile trek to the Kennedy Space Center’s main tourist stop, where it will be part of an exhibit in a building now under construction and expected to be completed next summer.
About 200 workers gathered in the early morning chill to see the spaceship out in the open for the final time. They were joined by the four astronauts who closed out the shuttle program aboard Atlantis more than a year ago.
“My opinion is it looks better vertically,” said Christopher Ferguson, the commander of Atlantis’ final flight.
“It’s a short trip. It’s taking a day,” he added. “It traveled a lot faster in its former life. But that’s OK. … it’s got a new role.”
Portions of Atlantis’ final launch countdown boomed over loudspeakers before the shuttle hit the road. Employees gathered in front of a long white banner that read, “We Made History,” and below that the single word “Atlantis.” They followed the spaceship for a block or two, then scattered as the shuttle transporter revved up to its maximum 2 mph. The convoy included a dozen trucks and vans, their lights blinking.
The fact that several hundred shuttle workers are about to lose their jobs, now that Atlantis is being turned over to the visitor complex, dampened the mood. Thousands already have been laid off.
“The untold story of the last couple years, the last missions that we flew, is the work force. I mean, the contractors knew that their numbers were going to go down … and yet they kept doing their jobs,” said NASA’s Angie Brewer, who was once in charge of getting Atlantis ready for flight.
Some were too upset to even show up. Friday’s event marked the true end to the 30-year shuttle program.
Seeing so many members of the shuttle team “helps soften the hard edge of seeing Atlantis go off to a museum,” said astronaut Rex Walheim, part of the ship’s final crew.
Atlantis made its way down broad industrial avenues, most of them off-limits to the public. So the trek did not replicate the narrow, stop-and-go turns Endeavour encountered last month while navigating downtown Los Angeles.
The mastermind behind Atlantis’ slow march through Kennedy was sweating bullets nonetheless.
“It’s only a priceless artifact driving 9.8 miles and it weighs 164,000 pounds,” said Tim Macy, director of project development and construction for Kennedy’s visitor complex operator, the company Delaware North.
“Other than that, no pressure at all,” Macy said, laughing. “Only the eyes of the country and the world and everybody at NASA is watching us.”
The relocation of Atlantis was plotted out for months, he noted last week, and experienced shuttle workers took part.
The roundabout loop took Atlantis past Kennedy’s headquarters building for a midmorning ceremony that drew several thousand past and present employees, and their guests, as well as a few dozen astronauts. A high school color guard and band led the way.