Atlantis, left, scorched and grimy just as it
returned from space, is the centerpiece of a new
permanent shuttle exhibit at Kennedy Space Center
CANAVERAL, Fla. — 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
they call it an exhibit, the partners have created a $100
million museum for the shuttle program, of which Atlantis
is the star.
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
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.
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.
tell about the shuttles’ role in ferrying workers and
materials to build the International Space Station, and
launching and later repairing the Hubble Space Telescope.
simulators allow guests to sit at a console and try to
land the shuttle on earth, dock it to the International
Space Station or maneuver its robotic arm — which was
used to deploy equipment from the payload bay.
also can sit on a space toilet and learn how the process
works in zero gravity — a question so many people ask
that the Endeavor exhibit at the California Science Center
in Los Angeles has a similar display. "That’s what
everybody wants to know — kids of all ages," Ross
I visited two weeks ago, the exhibit was crowded with
people snapping photos, asking questions, trying to work
the various interactive displays. Kids scrambled through
the space station models, and both children and adults
sitting at simulators laughed and frowned as they
struggled to maneuver shuttle and robotic arms into place.
mostly, whether they were adults who remembered the rocket
programs that preceded the shuttle or youngsters born
after the shuttle program was well-established, they
stopped and gazed at the shuttle suspended before them.
they recognized Ross or overheard him talking about his
experiences in space, they often stopped to shake his hand
or ask if he would pose for a photo with them, recognizing
that he embodied the courage of the astronaut corps, the
adventure of the shuttle program, and the drama of
spacewalks — he did nine, including repair work on the
Hubble Space Telescope and the Gamma Ray Observatory and
assembly of the International Space Station.
the exhibit, the orbiter’s doors are open, as they were
most of the time a shuttle was in orbit. Ross explained
that radiators on the inside surface of the doors transmit
excess heat from the shuttle into space.
near the replica Hubble telescope on display near
Atlantis, he explained how the telescope — 43 feet long,
its solar panels and booms with antenna dishes folded up
with it — fit snugly into the 60-foot-long cargo bay.
pointing at the robotic arm, Ross recalled taking a break
during a spacewalk while attached to the arm, 35 or 40
feet above the payload bay, on his third shuttle flight:
had a chance to turn off my helmet-mounted light, look
back at the universe," he said. "I had this
incredible feeling that this was what God had intended for
me to be."
the Kennedy Space Center, home to all of the shuttle
launches and most landings, the Atlantis museum brings the
heavens down to earth.
Kennedy Space Center, which draws about 1.5 million
visitors a year, was one of only three institutions to get
a shuttle. The other two, Endeavor and Discovery, went to
the California Science Center in Los Angeles and the
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. A
test orbiter, Enterprise, which did not make it into
space, went to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in
New York. Twenty-one institutions competed for a shuttle;
the winners paid $28.8 million each for preparation and
removed certain parts, including the engines, for use in
the next phase in space exploration, the Space Launch
System. Instead, the shuttles now have replica engines on
display. In the decommissioning process, the agency also
cleaned toxic propellants and other substances off
Atlantis but did not pretty it up.
said ‘We can clean this up for you,’ but we said ‘No,
we want every scratch, every ding,’" said Andrea
Farmer, spokeswoman for the visitors complex. "You
look at this and you realize you’re seeing something
remarkable, something that launches like a rocket, orbits
like a spacecraft and glides back down like an
of the building and the exhibits took 18 months. Last
November, when three walls were up, crews wheeled Atlantis
through the open fourth side and into position, then built
the fourth wall.
shuttle exhibit helps beef up the core of the visitors
complex, where the elements are so spread out that
visitors have to be bused between them — past the
Vehicle Assembly Building, where rockets and shuttles were
assembled; out to an observation gantry with a view of
Launch Pad 39A (lift-off point for most shuttle launches);
over to the building that houses a replica of the Launch
Command Center and the enormous Saturn V rocket; then back
to the visitors center. Plans are for the U.S. Astronaut
Hall of Fame, six miles west of the complex, to eventually
move there, too.
The visitors complex at the Kennedy Space Center is on
State Route 405 on Merritt Island, just northwest of Cape
Adults $50, children 3-11 $40. Includes general bus tour
(not special behind-the-scenes tours), Atlantis exhibit
and launch experience, Angry Birds Space Encounter, IMAX
3-D films, Apollo/Saturn V Center, Astronaut Hall of Fame.
Opens daily at 9 a.m. with closing times varying by