Theme Park Ranger
8:41 AM EDT, June 27, 2013
Atlantis is ready for its close-up.
The orbiter that made the final flight of NASA's shuttle program now is in a new $100-million home created for it at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The 90,000-square foot attraction — called Space Shuttle Atlantis — opens Saturday.
Folks literally come nose-to-nose with the shuttle in dramatic fashion. It's so close you can almost touch it. And it's tilted at a 43-degree angle so guests can see it from multiple viewpoints — including looking down into its cargo bays and looking up at its underbelly, complete with scorched tiles.
The attraction spotlights the ship in the condition it landed on Earth after its last mission in July 2011.
"It still has its space dust on it. It still has the nicks in the bottom of it. It still has all those things that make it so unique," says Tim Macy, the Brevard County attraction's director of project development and construction.
Atlantis, which flew 33 missions, is the centerpiece of the building. The ship is surrounded by 60 hands-on kiosks and activities that enlighten about the entire shuttle fleet and other outer-space matters such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station.
The attraction's entrance is fronted by a replica of the shuttle's external fuel tank and the two solid rocket boosters that propelled the fleet into space. The 184-foot structure is identical to the real thing "down to the bolt," officials say, but without the fuel.
The building sports an orange "swoosh" architectural feature of shiny tiles, and it's designed to represent the glow of the launches and re-entries. The color also coordinates with the look of the rocket boosters. The building's gray tiles tie in with the color of the underside of Atlantis.
Guests enter the building and immediately walk up ramps to the second level of the attraction. The glass front looks out onto the rest of the complex, including the picturesque Rocket Garden.
The first stop is an 11-minute film recapping the planning of the space shuttle, dating back to 1969.
The United States "actually started planning for the shuttle program before we set foot on the moon," Macy says.
The movie is a dramatization of events, including the announcement that NASA would create a vehicle that would launch like a rocket, land like an airplane and be reusable.
After the film, guests walk into a smaller space with a screen on one end and four arched screens overhead and along the sides of the room. This arrangement creates a three-dimensional feel, Macy says.
The second film begins with the first launch — space shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981 — and is followed by footage of other liftoffs and space activities.
"At one point, we have 13 launches going off at the same time all around you," Macy says.
The narration includes a reference to John Young, the astronaut who grew up in Orlando, and the soaring soundtrack incorporates the twin sonic booms associated with shuttle landings.
Amid the special effects, an image of the shuttle appears. It looks real. Is it?
A scrim rises to reveal Atlantis, and that serves as the entry to the attraction. The effect has been a crowd-pleaser during rehearsals, Macy says.
"People are coming out cheering and crying. The wow factor works," Macy says. "There's no doubt about it, it's memorable."
Behind Atlantis is a LED screen showing an orbital sunrise, which furthers the illusion. Guests exit the theater at eye level with Atlantis, slanted to represent the angle at which it undocked from the International Space Station. A ramp near the back of the room leads to viewing areas beneath the shuttle. The tiles of the underside resemble snake skin and the shape of the backlit orbiter looks like a stingray.
Cool, dark tones — think night sky — dominate the interior of the new attraction. It gives the space a museum-style feel. There are 1,700 theatrical lighting fixtures aimed at Atlantis, scorch marks and all.
"I used to say, 'She's ugly, but she's pretty,' you know? But she's just pretty," Macy says.
'A lot of pizazz'
On all levels, there are spots to delve into space exploration. The attraction includes a film about the Hubble Space Telescope, which was hauled by space shuttle Discovery in 1990. A replica of the telescope looms nearby.
Monitors running the length of Atlantis show an "X-ray" of its control systems, while simulators challenge guests to perform a spacewalk. Simulators also present virtual missions of exploring the payload bay, or repairing the Hubble and the space station's ESP2 platform.
Hands-on, high-tech attractions are a lure for kids, who learn differently than their parents did, Macy says.
"You have to have a lot of interactivity, a lot of pizazz to make it work," he says.
More low-tech but still educational is a giant slide leading to the ground floor. It's designed to represent a landing space shuttle, including the high-banked "S" curves.
The attraction also includes a multilevel version of the International Space Station, which includes the Microgravity Theater and shows how astronauts live, eat and work in space today.
No tax dollars were used to create the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction. The development and operation of the complex, operated by Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, is funded through ticket, food and merchandise sales.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex was one of 40 organizations that wanted to house a shuttle after the fleet was retired.
"We had to start building a home and thinking about a home before we knew we had a shuttle," says Bill Moore, chief operating officer of the complex. "The hardest part was not knowing if we were getting one," he says.
Eventually, space shuttle Endeavour was awarded to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, Discovery to Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Va., and Atlantis to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Atlantis retires where its career began and where all 135 space shuttle missions took off from.
"This is home," Moore says. "And for the last one to fly to be home? Perfect."
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Space Shuttle Atlantis
Where: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, State Road 405 in Brevard County. From Orlando, take State Road 528 east to State Road 407 north to State Road 405 east.
When: Grand opening is 9:30 a.m. Saturday.
Cost: $50 ($40 for ages 3-11)
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