Construction Begins on Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit Groundbreaking Ceremony

A groundbreaking ceremony officially begins construction on space shuttle Atlantis’ new home at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Credit: NASA

On January 18, a groundbreaking ceremony marked the beginning of construction of a new exhibit that will become the permanent home for Space Shuttle Atlantis. Due to open in the summer of 2013, the new 65,000-square-foot exhibit will be located at the Space Shuttle Plaza in the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Orlando, Florida.

With space shuttle Atlantis’ 25-year spaceflight career now in the history books, its next mission — to inform and inspire generations of visitors to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida — is one step closer to reality. A groundbreaking ceremony January 18, 2012, officially launched construction of a new 65,000-square-foot exhibit at the complex’s Space Shuttle Plaza, where NASA’s fourth space-rated orbiter will be the main attraction.

“It is an honor to create the home for space shuttle Atlantis and to work with NASA to tell its story to the world,” said Jeremy Jacobs, chairman and chief executive officer of Delaware North Companies, which operates the visitor complex for NASA.

Participating in the event were Jacobs; Janet Petro, Kennedy Space Center deputy director; Chris Ferguson, who commanded Atlantis on its final mission, STS-135; Bill Moore, chief operating officer of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex; and Florida Lt. Governor Jennifer Carroll. Wearing hard hats and gripping shovels, they made the ceremonial first turn of the soil at the construction site.

STS-135 Commander Chris Ferguson at Atlantis Groundbreaking Ceremony

STS-135 Commander Chris Ferguson speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony. Credit: NASA

From October 1985 to July 2011, Atlantis helped carry the nation’s astronauts and payloads on journeys into low Earth orbit. The spacecraft was the first to dock with the Russian space station Mir and aided in the construction of the International Space Station. From Atlantis’ payload bay, NASA deployed the Magellan and Galileo planetary probes, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and other satellites. Atlantis also was the last shuttle to fly a servicing mission to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

It’s a legacy NASA is eager to share through the new exhibit, which is expected to open in 2013.

“It’s very fortunate we can celebrate this milestone, fortunate we had the foresight and the resources to preserve Atlantis to serve as a reminder of the limitless potential of the citizens of the United States of America, and inspire those who will come after us,” Ferguson said.

The vehicle will be displayed as if in flight with its payload bay doors open, offering a view of its 60-foot-long cargo area. Additionally, a variety of simulators and interactive elements will offer visitors the chance to experience the challenge of grappling a satellite or move through a model of the International Space Station.

Atlantis Exhibit Design Concept

Artist rendering initial design concept for the new exhibit showcases Atlantis as though it were in flight. Credit: PGAV Destinations for Delaware North Parks & Resort

“This is not just a story about the hardware,” said Moore. “This is really a true story of hardworking people who worked together — thousands of people — to do amazing things.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced on April 12, 2011, that Atlantis would stay at the Florida spaceport following its retirement. The welcomed news came on the 30-year anniversary of the first space shuttle flight.

Atlantis flew nearly 126 million miles during a total of 307 days in space. It returned to Earth for good on July 21, 2011, its main landing gear kicking up dust for the last time on Kennedy’s shuttle runway with a predawn touchdown at 5:57 a.m. EDT.

“This coming Saturday does mark six months since the final landing of Atlantis out here, about three miles behind me,” said Ferguson. “With that final landing, the shuttle program came to a conclusion after 30 years of discovery and exploration. At times we had to lick our wounds, at times there were joyous moments, but by the grace of God we concluded the program just the way we wanted to, very safely.”

Artist Rendering of Atlantis Exhibit Entrance

This artist rendering reveals a full-scale external tank and twin solid rocket booster replicas standing at the exhibit entrance. Credit” PGAV Destinations for Delaware North Parks & Resort

After undergoing standard post-mission processing, Atlantis entered into its longer “transition and retirement” phase. Each vehicle’s trio of main engines will be replaced with mock-ups; the real engines are being saved for use on a new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System. The orbital maneuvering system (OMS) pods and forward reaction control system, which used toxic propellants, will be cleaned and deserviced at White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, N.M. Ultimately, the engines in the OMS pods will be replaced with replicas.

Although Atlantis will remain close by, the other spacecraft in the shuttle fleet will go to new exhibits outside of Florida. Shuttle Discovery is destined for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., and Endeavour will be displayed at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Enterprise, used in approach and landing tests at the advent of the Space Shuttle Program, will move to New York‘s Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.

“For 30 years, the orbiters have been a part of our family. We’ve cared for them, we’ve protected them, and we’ve watched them soar. We’ve marveled at the similarities between them, and the differences that only ‘family’ could identify,” said Janet Petro, deputy director of Kennedy Space Center. “Atlantis’ new home is beautifully designed to showcase her as the true engineering marvel that she is.”

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