The mood was more upbeat than when the one-way road trip began four hours earlier and resembled a funeral procession. NASA officials went out of their way to emphasize the space agency’s future.
“It’s an incredibly historic day,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., a former skipper of Atlantis. “But I don’t preside over an agency that’s in the history business. … We’re in the business of creating the future.”
Bolden proudly cited NASA’s new target destinations for astronauts – an asteroid and Mars – and he hailed the successful start to commercial supply missions to the International Space Station.
The next stop for Atlantis, meanwhile, was a still-under-design industrial park that offered a few hours of public viewing in the afternoon. Tourist tickets ran as high as $90 apiece for a chance to see the spaceship up close.
Crews removed 120 light poles, 23 traffic signals and 56 traffic signs in order for Atlantis to squeeze by. One high-voltage power line also had to come down. Staff trimmed back some scrub pines, but there was none of the widespread tree-axing that occurred in Los Angeles.
Atlantis had to traverse just one noticeable incline, a highway ramp. The rest of the course is sea-level flat.
Tourists jammed the public portion of Atlantis’ route. Patricia LeBlanc, visiting from Orlando with her daughter, said she misses the shuttle launches. Thirteen-year-old Ashley Gest, waiting in line for astronaut autographs with her Ormond Beach family, was excited to see Atlantis but expressed sadness, too.
The grand entrance into Atlantis’ new home, in the early evening, was expected to go just as smoothly. One complete wall of the exhibit hall was kept off, carport-style, so the shuttle could roll right in. Construction will begin on the missing wall early next week.
Once safely inside, Atlantis will be plastic-wrapped for protection until the building is completed. The grand opening is set for July 2013.
Total exhibit cost: $100 million, a price borne by Delaware North.
Discovery, the oldest and most traveled space shuttle, was the first to leave, zooming off to the Smithsonian in Virginia in April atop a modified jumbo jet. Endeavour, the baby of the fleet, headed west in September.
And now, Atlantis.
“Although it’s the end of Atlantis flying in space, it’s not the end. It’s not the end for KSC,” stressed Kennedy Space Center director Robert Cabana, a former astronaut. “And it’s not the end for Atlantis because Atlantis now takes on a mission of inspiration to future generations.”