Chasing Atlantis: The Shuttle Era Ends at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

A long day pursuing space shuttle Atlantis culminates in a spectacular fireworks display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex located in Florida. Atlantis will now be placed on public display in a $100 million facility set to open in the summer of next year. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / Zero-G News

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – Space shuttle Atlantis’ final planned journey began early today. The orbiter, which flew 33 missions beyond the veil of Earth’s atmosphere, conducted her final mission by wheel. Atlantis was moved via the 76-wheeled Orbiter Transportation System or OTS starting at 6 a.m. EDT.

Atlantis traveled 9.8 miles on the route to her final destination, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. She was escorted along the way by a wide range of personnel that have cared for the orbiter since she arrived at KSC in 1985. These included engineers, technicians and astronauts that traveled on the orbiter during the more than 25 years that the shuttle was in service.

The weather for Atlantis’ final trip today – could not have been better. What pilots call “severe clear” was the order of the day and not a single cloud crossed the orbiters path. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / CocoaBeachPhotography.com

Angela Brewer, Atlantis’ Flow Director who currently works as the operations manager for transition and retirement had spent 29 years with the space program and for her the day was bittersweet.

“I’m happy that she will get to stay here, that she successfully flew her final mission. Everyone on this team feels very strongly about these vehicles, they are like a part of our family,” said Brewer who was very emotional when asked about the orbiters that were such a large part of her life for so many years. “I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of such a wonderful program.”

From left-to-right, NASA’s Director for External Relations, Cheryl Hurst, the commander of Atlantis’ final mission, Chris Ferguson, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana, former astronaut Karol “Bo” Bobko and Kennedy Space Center Director William Moore mark the transition of Atlantis from NASA to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

The crew of STS-135, the last flight of Atlantis as well as the final mission of the shuttle was on hand at Orbiter Processing Facility 2 (OPF-2) to share their thoughts about the significance of today’s milestone. Chris Ferguson, the commander of STS-135 mused about sneaking in to the Atlantis display after hours one day and having a good look at Atlantis in her new setting.

“I hope they would let me and I’d have no problem buying a ticket to go see her, that is a beautiful facility they (Delaware North Companies, the operators of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex) have built,” Ferguson said as Atlantis was rolled out of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building for her new home. “It’s fitting of what the shuttle deserves.”

Ferguson’s sentiments were echoed by his pilot on STS-135, Douglas Hurley.

“I’ve not had the opportunity to see the facility since they started construction, but all the imagery I’ve seen of it shows that it will be a fitting tribute to Atlantis,” Hurley said just as the orbiter began to roll toward its new home. “Chris Ferguson our commander has been down here to see it at least once or twice, so I’m looking forward to seeing it for myself.”

Atlantis’ final journey started at around 6:30 p.m. EDT and concluded roughly twelve hours later. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak

Giving Atlantis what she deserved and getting her to her new home took a tremendous effort to ensure that OV-104 (Atlantis’ official NASA designation) made it to its new home. Here are some of the things that needed temporary alterations:

  • One hundred twenty light poles had to be moved.
  • Twenty-three traffic signals had to be moved.
  • Fifty-six traffic signs had to be moved.
  • One high-voltage power line had to be removed.

While the numbers of utilities that had to be rearranged might be interesting, the number of milestones that Atlantis accumulated during her career is nothing short of staggering. Atlantis traveled 125,935,769 miles in space, with a total of 355 astronauts carried aloft by her. These space flyers hailed from sixteen different nationalities. The Visitor Complex’s latest addition traveled to Russia’s Mir space station seven times and she journeyed 12 times to the International Space Station. It was Atlantis that deployed the Magellan spacecraft to Venus and the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter.

Crowds of guests flocked around the orbiter when it was at Exploration Park, a facility near the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

“Having Atlantis here at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is really important to me, my second and as it turned out, last flight, was on Atlantis,” said Robert C. Springer during a recent interview. “It turns out it was a first for Atlantis, it was the first time that Atlantis had landed at the Kennedy Space Center and it was the first time post-Challenger that an orbiter had landed at KSC. To me, that is just a couple of many personal and wonderful reasons that I love having her so close to home.”

When pressed if he thought that the Visitor Complex had won the best of the three surviving space-flown orbiters, Springer smiled and said, “Absolutely.”

Atlantis is the last of NASA’s three space-worthy orbiters to leave the space agency’s care for her new home. Discovery left KSC back in April for the Smithsonian’s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center located in Chantilly, VA, Endeavour departed Florida’s Space Coast for the West Coast’s California Science Center, located in Los Angeles, CA last month.

A common theme that arose throughout the course of the day is that Atlantis and her sisters will serve in a new capacity, that of a beacon of inspiration to future generations of explorers. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / awaltersphoto.com

The Visitor Complex has laid out an ambitious $100 million facility to house Atlantis. The orbiter will be place on display as if in flight, with her payload bay doors open and various elements of the shuttle program on display around her. The facility is currently slated to open in summer of 2013.

Numerous guests, officials and dignitaries were on hand for the various events and ceremonies held to mark the occasion. Some of these include, NASA Administrator and former shuttle astronaut Charlie Bolden, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana and Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll. Those that gave presentations expressed hope that Atlantis in her new capacity would serve to inspire future generations of explorers.

“It’s hard to put into words, that feeling you have when you get out of the orbiter and you’re just walking around on the runway afterward, knowing that just a short while earlier it was in space. I hope that guests to the Visitor Center will have that same feeling of awe that those of us who flew on her had after our missions,” Hurley said.

The AmericaSpace team began work documenting the final move of Atlantis in the very early hours of Nov. 2, 2012. This article is named for shirts worn by a team documenting Atlantis’ transition- as it is a fitting title to the work we did to bring this to you. Our crew of journalists and photojournalists moved several times during the day to stay one step ahead of OV-104 and it felt very much like a race, one which we all felt honored to be a part of.

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