Grimy with space dust, scratched, its tiles scorched by the heat of re-entry, the retired space shuttle Atlantis is surprisingly majestic after 33 missions into space. And that’s how you can see it in a new exhibit at Kennedy Space Center, as if it were just departing the International Space Station, tilted at a 43.21-degree angle, coming home.
I’m not going to tell you about the first glimpse you’ll catch of Atlantis, centerpiece of its own museum. Instead of simply putting the orbiter on display, Kennedy Space Center and its partners have created a dramatic reveal, a chest-swelling moment that might lose its impact if you knew what was going to happen.
In fact, seeing the shuttle up close, its homely nose leading into a turn, its payload bay doors open, its robotic arm extended, is pretty chest-swelling in itself, even without the ceremony. Mounted at that angle, it looks like it’s still in action.
The shuttle is about the size of a Boeing 737, but if you’re accustomed to seeing it mounted for launch on its larger external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters, it doesn’t look that big. Here though, the orbiter floats just a few feet out of reach, and for the first time — at least for most of us — we see just how big it is: 122 feet long, with a wingspan of 78 feet, its tiled underside looking like the scaly, scarred belly of an enormous snake.
“This is the queen of the fleet,” said Jerry Ross, a mission specialist who flew five of his seven shuttle missions on Atlantis and was explaining how things work in the new exhibition.
Atlantis, the fourth of NASA’s five shuttles, made its first flight in 1985. It flew for the last time in July 2011, the final flight of the shuttle program. On June 29, Atlantis went on display in a building constructed just for that purpose at Cape Canaveral. The exhibition is called Space Shuttle Atlantis.
The exhibit — creative, sophisticated and comprehensive — was built by Delaware North, the company that has operated Kennedy’s visitors complex for NASA since 1995. The building and displays were designed by PGAV Destinations, a St. Louis design firm that specializes in attractions — theme parks, zoos, aquarium and the like — and wrote a 10-year master plan for the visitors complex, including the shuttle exhibit.
Although they call it an exhibit, the partners have created a $100 million museum for the shuttle program, of which Atlantis is the star.
Outside, full-size replicas of the shuttle’s external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters stand at the entrance, a dramatic 184-foot tower visible from the highway. Inside the 90,000-square-foot building, docents, some of whom worked in the shuttle program, are available to answer questions.
Films and exhibits tell about the history of the shuttle program: development of a reusable spacecraft started by NASA in the 1960s; the first shuttle flight by Columbia in 1981; 135 missions by five orbiters between 1981 and 2011.
Atlantis is surrounded by the artifacts of its career in space: a full-size replica of the Hubble Space Telescope; an astronaut mannequin suspended from a robotic arm for a spacewalk; scaled-down models of labs from the International Space Station; an interactive touchscreen timeline where guests can look up details of particular missions and crews; an exhibit of space tools; a walk-through replica of the cockpit and control panel; a “shuttle launch experience” in which strapped-in guests feel the sensations of a launch; mock-ups of the shuttle engines, and more.