Getting up close and personal with Space Shuttle Atlantis

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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.

Before shuttle

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?

Introducing Atlantis

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.

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