KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - For more than 30 years, watching the bright flame of a space shuttle rocketing toward space until it was no more than a blip in the sky was one of the joys of living in Brevard.
Starting Saturday, you can get an up-close and personal view of space shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in a setting that shows off just how magnificent that blip really is, according to Local 6 news partner Florida Today.
The newest attraction at KSC, joining its already popular Shuttle Launch Experience and Angry Birds Space Encounter, opens with great fanfare. Friday, as part of the VIP experience, there will be refreshments and music with guest speakers. The same goes for Saturday morning. Close to 50 astronauts are on the guest list with at least one from each of Atlantis' 33 missions. Apollo astronauts also are expected to attend.
"Atlantis is on display as she would be normally in flight. It's the first time ever that a lot of people are going to see her this close," said Tim Macy, director of project development and construction for Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts.
"Here we are dealing with a national treasure," Macy said. With a price tag of $1.66 billion, "it's a priceless artifact."
Through logistical and engineering feats, the shuttle was tilted at a 43-degree angle with her payload doors open. Visitors can walk under, around or "nose level" to the massive craft. During the planning phase, thousands of pictures were taken. Those images later helped organizers choose the blueprint for how Atlantis would be displayed.
The result displays the view an astronaut would get as he or she looked out the International Space Station window as Atlantis was pulling away.
How it began
Although KSC wasn't officially announced as Atlantis' permanent home until April 2011, the idea for the Atlantis exhibit came about five years ago, with development starting a couple of years later and construction going on for the past 17 months. Delaware North worked with engineers from NASA, a design team and technical adviser.
The $100 million project was funded through money borrowed from Space Florida, money generated from KSC Visitor Complex admission fees and money made from food and merchandise, Macy said. No government funds or tax dollars were used.
Atlantis was wrapped in plastic before its big move from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the state-of-the-art exhibit facility last fall. That 90,000-square-foot building boasts an impressive theater, giant LED screens and 1,700 light fixtures. Quotes from people who played a role in the Atlantis program line the walls along with breathtaking photography of the shuttle and its glory.
"This building was huge, then on Nov. 2, the building got very small very quick," said Macy. "The bird itself, everyone thinks it's slick and going to be pretty. But we're showing you what it looked like when it landed after STS-135. It went straight from the landing strip, over to the orbiter processing facility, and then in November, we rolled it over here and lifted it up 30 feet and tipped it at 43 degrees."
NASA offered to clean it up and make it pristine, Macy said, but the team wanted the space dust to remain.
The exhibit originally was set to open May 2014, but opening date was accelerated to December 2013, then mid-July.
What to expect
Along with Atlantis, the exhibit features more than 60 interactive displays, continuous films in a theater and in the display area. An impressive mockup of the Hubble Space Telescope hangs near the gift shop. Videos show the history of Hubble and the role Atlantis played in fixing the telescope.
Just past Hubble is an exit from the Shuttle Launch Experience.
A 1983 airstream used by astronauts for various events is on display, as well as an astrovan, the vehicle used to ferry astronauts to and from launches and landings. The gift shop features space-themed artwork by children and an area where guests can dress up like astronauts for photo opps.
The play zone features a giant slide and "astronaut training" exercises.
Pop culture phenomenon Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central makes a special appearance in the exhibit — via a NASA treadmill. In 2009 during a NASA contest, the political pundit lobbied to name one of the rooms at the ISS after him. "Colbert" beat out NASA suggestions Serenity, Legacy, Earthrise and Venture. As a compromise, NASA introduced the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill. The treadmill is used for exercising in space. You can see Colbert's "mission patch" at KSC.
'Her next mission'
"We say this is her next mission," Macy said. "Her mission is to tell the story.
"We don't know really what's next in terms of manned space flight," he said. "Nobody's absolutely sure, but what we do know is that this shuttle and this shuttle program got us to where we are today."
Today's opening offers KSC visitors a unique experience and a chance to learn about a real mechanical superhero.
"Transformers are cool, but this is real," Macy said. "This is the real Transformer. This thing opens up and transforms itself from a rocket into a glider. That's a pretty cool transformation, I think."
WHAT: Atlantis exhibit
WHEN: The park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Starting Saturday, KSC guests will get to check out the new Atlantis exhibit.
WHERE: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on State Road 405
COST: Admission is $50 for adults, $40 for ages 3 to 11.
INFO: Call 866-737-5235 or visit www.kennedyspacecenter.com. Send a Tweet to @exploreksc