KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — When the space shuttle Atlantis launched here, the sky erupted in flames and giant rocket engines blasted so loudly you could feel the air shaking from miles away.
Atlantis launches again today: It's the first day you can see the retired spacecraft on its new mission, as the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center. During a preview Friday, it quickly became clear that the last shuttle to fly into orbit has not been mothballed.
Atlantis is the focal point of a $100 million addition to the Visitor Center here. And the center has worked hard to turn the exhibit into an exciting experience, not just a prop.
"This is not a museum," said Jim Reilly, an astronaut who flew aboard space shuttles three times, twice on Atlantis.
If you visit, you'll enter the new building beneath life-size reproductions of the space shuttle's giant orange external tank and its solid rocket boosters and wind up a ramp to see a somewhat glorified movie about the shuttle's development. In this clip, even bureaucratic delays seem heroic.
No matter. Because then you'll be guided into a new room and find yourself surrounded by a breathtaking movie that plays on the screen in front of you and on the walls beside you. You'll search for someone to hold onto when the tilting image on the screen makes you feel weightless. You'll watch the first space shuttle launch. Then you'll see a shuttle orbiter flipping and plunging through Earth's atmosphere, a computer-generated but realistic scene.
Next a screen will part, and it will be time for the climax of the exhibit — the shuttle orbiter itself, tilted with its back "payload bay" doors open, just as if it were in orbit. Spectators can't go inside Atlantis and can't touch it, but they can see the old spacecraft so close it's easy to make out the individual tiles.
Daren Ulmer had his work cut out for him. His California company, Mousetrappe, created the movies, bringing drama to a space program that the general public often lost interest in. He said he did so by focusing on the innovations of the shuttle — the nation's first reusable, winged spacecraft — and its role as a stepping stone toward future space exploration.
Ivey's Construction of Florida had the job of lifting and mounting Atlantis into place, and astronaut Reilly had a unique way of describing the challenge. He said the company had to work in a "1-G" environment — in other words, in the gravity of Earth.
The shuttle's payload bay doors were actually not designed to stay open on Earth, so they needed extra support and cables in their terrestrial setting.
For people old enough to remember moon landings, back when space travel was the most exciting thing anyone could think of, the mere chance to view a spacecraft up close is probably worth the drive from Tampa Bay. But that might also be the point when a 12-year-old says: "Now what?"
Fortunately for mom and dad, there is an answer. The new Atlantis building is filled with many more interactive exhibits, including a Hubble Space Telescope mockup and movie, a reproduction International Space Station and more. The admission price ($50 for adults, $40 for kids 3-11) also includes the Shuttle Launch Experience, IMAX movies and a visit to the Saturn V complex, not to mention some cool gift shops. A side trip to the Vehicle Assembly Building would be extra.
For information about tickets, visit kennedyspacecenter.com.