Kennedy Space Center’s space shuttle exhibit brings the heavens down to earth

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 nose leading into a turn, its payload bay doors open, its robotic arm extended, is pretty chest-swelling in itself. 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.

Though called an exhibit, it’s more 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; and 135 missions by five orbiters between 1981 and 2011.

Touchscreens, replicas

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.

Films 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.

Twenty-one 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.

If visitors 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.

In 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.

Standing 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.

And 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:

“I 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.”

‘Every scratch’ remains

The Kennedy Space Center, which draws about 1.5 million visitors a year, was one of only three institutions to get a shuttle. The Endeavor went to the California Science Center in Los Angeles; Discovery went to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

NASA 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.

“NASA 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 airplane.”

By the way, visitors 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 in California has a similar display.

“That’s what everybody wants to know – kids of all ages,” Ross said.