Space Shuttle Atlantis has begun its final mission, to inspire young minds concerning science, math, and physics, and also to garner public support for continued space exploration. A veteran of 33 space missions, this final mission could be the most important one for this glorious craft, for without funding, our nation will continue to rely on other organizations for the launching of manned space missions on foreign soil.
Over forty astronauts, representing all thirty-three of Atlantis’s missions were in attendance, and their differences in age showed how long the program carried the aspirations of low earth orbit spaceflight. In addition to those who were physically in attendance, a special message was downloaded from the International Space Station to mark the occasion.
The entrance to the exhibit is framed by a full-sized replica of the fuel tank with the solid rocket boosters attached that stands 184 feet tall. After much celebration, the countdown commenced, the igniters fired, and smoke billowed from the base of the boosters and the several hundred people in attendance clapped and cheered.
While the crowd surged towards the entrance after the smoke cleared, a special photo opportunity was taking place inside the exhibit. All of the astronauts in attendance gathered toward the nose of the craft, and a group photo was taken. After they left the scene, the media waited to see the reaction of the first public visitors to the unveiling. For the media itself on the day before, once the presentation was complete there was hushed silence followed by applause while a staff member motioned us forward to see the craft. Would the public like Space Shuttle Atlantis?
All day long the rounds of applause filled the gallery as each new group finished the movie and gazed upon Atlantis as only astronauts had previously seen her, because here on Earth she always was level to the ground with other mechanical supports for the cargo bay doors. Now, she is tilted at a 43.21 degree angle and her doors are open with the Robotic Arm extended like she is back in space. This is the only one of the Space Shuttles not displayed in a horizontal position.
A special visitor, Mark from Celebration, Florida graciously let us follow him through the exhibit. He flies model rockets and radio control planes of his own and has been looking forward to the opening for some time. Mark is an Autistic young man with a speech impediment, who likes anything that flies, and enjoys drawing pictures in his spare time. He was all smiles as he stood beside Atlantis after the unveiling
A walkway takes visitors along the length of the shuttle, towards the tail, and the scars of her storied space exploits are evident, and she remains like she landed, complete with impact scars and space dust. Above the tail section is a giant 400K screen which depicts sunrise and sunset where the shuttle appears to float in space. The lighting system in the gallery which changes along with sunrise and sunset as the shuttle would be orbiting the earth.
The shuttle appears to be working on the Hubble Telescope, the most advanced camera deployed in space. This full-sized model brings new vision to the term, “big science,” for it is nearly as big as a school bus. A side gallery of the accomplishments of the Hubble program, including some spectacular pictures, is just off the nose of Atlantis.
Mark was able to check out the a mock-up of the shuttles cockpit and view some of the simulations, before he descended a corridor with the fiery red glow of reentry, which turns to blue as the temperature decreases due to the reduction in speed. Daring adventurers can create a sonic boom and go down a slide, after mimicking the “S” curve of a shuttle landing.
Once on the bottom floor, there are simulators for landing, docking, extending the robot arm, and many other exhibits. Everything is modeled after the actual consoles used by the astronauts for training.
Following Mark, along with his family through, the exhibits we couldn’t help but notice all the support technology that allows humans to thrive in the isolation of space. As guests participate in the many interactive parts of Space Shuttle Atlantis, NASA displays the many adaptions required for human space exploration.
Autism affects 1 in 88 children here in the United States. Imagine how many lives could be changed if the applicable technology from space exploration could be utilized to provide these children and their families with leading edge technology to help them overcome their challenges and lead more fruitful lives. This could be another legacy of NASA research.
The venting “Beanie Cap,” from Pad 39B is the center piece of the Space Shuttle Processing Area. One of the simulators here allows guests to attempt to prepare the shuttle for launch, by mating the orbiter with the shuttle stack. Another allows them to simulate the experience of mixing the fuel components prior to countdown.
Various other exhibits like used shuttle tires, and the actual model plane that started the program are included. Everything is historically accurate and extraordinarily well done. NASA has chosen very wisely in allowing the Kennedy Space Visitor Center be the curator of this rare artifact, the last Space Shuttle flown by the United States, beginning and ending its flight program at the Kennedy Space Center. Space Shuttle Atlantis is just beginning it educational mission just miles away from its final launch and touchdown.
Our thanks to Mark, Andrea, all the astronauts, and everyone else at the Kennedy Space Visitor Center for their hospitality on this momentous occasion, for now Space Shuttle Atlantis will continue to fly in the minds of everyone who visits her.