BY SUSAN THURSTON
Times Staff Writer
TITUSVILLE — Don't tell employees at the Kennedy Space Center the U.S. space program is grounded. Quite the contrary, they say, pointing to the latest rocket launches and deep-space missions.
For an example of a major investment, they talk up the $100 million home of the space shuttle Atlantis, opening to the public June 29.
The 90,000-square-foot exhibit building will house the Atlantis and tell the story of NASA's 30-year shuttle program through dozens of interactive exhibits and simulators. Visitors will be able to get within feet of the shuttle, artfully displayed 26 feet off the ground and rotated 43 degrees as if it were flying.
The orbiter is big and impressive and still dirty with asteroid dust. If it looks like it's been to hell and back, that's because it probably has been. The shuttle traveled 125 million miles during 33 missions before reaching its final resting spot at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
The Atlantis is the star of a 10-year master plan for the complex operated by Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts. The center recently completed construction of a $16 million entry plaza, gift shop and restaurant and added closeup tours of the Kennedy Space Center launch pad and vehicle assembly building — areas that had not been open to the public in decades. In March, it opened the Angry Birds Space Encounter.
The Atlantis exhibit significantly expands the existing Space Launch Experience on the complex's eastern edge. Guests will walk into the building under a 184-foot gateway made up of two full-size solid rocket boosters and an orange external fuel tank.
Inside, visitors will watch two 10-minute multimedia presentations about the history of the shuttle program and its importance. A 40-foot screen will rise to the ceiling, dramatically revealing the Atlantis in a darkened room with an image of earth behind it.
Designers created the exhibit for all ages and interest levels. A slide, space walk simulators and crawl-through mini International Space Station cater to young astronauts in training. Launch pad equipment and a replica of the Hubble Space Telescope (which was launched into orbit by shuttle Discovery) appeal to aeronautical fans. Everyone exits through a gift shop.
Also included is the Angry Birds Space Encounter, an attraction developed in partnership with Rovio Entertainment, creators of the wildly popular red birds video games.
The 4,485-square-foot indoor attraction has six interactive stations that bring to life characters from the games. Visitors can shoot space pigs with a slingshot, walk through a mirrored labyrinth or create their own digital Angry Bird. Players also can compete in the Red Planet laser challenge, ducking over and under light beams in search of golden eggs. Activities cater to children ages 6 to 14 but are suitable for most ages.
Also new is the Visitor Complex entrance area, with self-service kiosks, a will-call station and gift shop, which doesn't require park admission. Central to the expanded plaza is a 75-foot-long fountain honoring the late President John F. Kennedy, the space center's namesake.
For history and space buffs, the center recently added a Mega Tour of the space shuttle launch pad area and vehicle assembly building. The tours give a detailed look at how the shuttles were built and transported by "crawler'' to the launch pad. The tours take over two hours and are packed with information rather than thrills, meaning young kids might get antsy. Tickets are $40 for adults and $30 for children.
Susan Thurston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3110.