The NASA bosses were smart enough to know that once the space shuttle program ended in 2011, the vehicles themselves would be in huge demand. Most of the shuttles were doled out to various museums, but the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which touched down July 21, 2011, after flying the last of its 33 shuttle missions, was put on display at the Kennedy Space Center beginning in June 2013.
Tour the Space Shuttle Atlantis
The entrance to this six-story structure is flanked by same-size copies of the liftoff systems for all shuttles: an enormous orange external fuel tank and a pair of white solid rocket boosters. The fuel tank stands 184 feet tall, and visitors can walk underneath it as they enter the building. The structure is clad in orange-yellow tiling, to represent the flames of liftoff, and gray-silver, representing the underside shielding of the orbiters.
Visitors enter a movie theater that can hold 250 people: In addition to the large screen in front, other screens cover part of the sides and reach overhead. A 12-minute film depicts a 1969 meeting at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, where NASA executives were told to design and construct something new—a reusable spaceship to aid in building the International Space Station. The film includes actual footage of failures NASA experienced while trying to create the shuttle. Finally, 12 years later, the first space shuttle did lift off.
The screen is filled with the familiar image of the ignition sequence, the billowing clouds of smoke, and a NASA announcer proclaiming that Atlantis has achieved liftoff. With that, the front screen lifts up, and the audience is just a few yards from the Space Shuttle Atlantis. The orbiter hangs from the ceiling, tilted so that visitors can see inside the open cargo bay and walk under the extended cargo boom, named the Canadarm. You will also see evidence of the wear on the heat tiles, sustained during the shuttle’s 33 liftoffs and reentries and more than 125 million miles of travel about 220 miles above Earth.
A series of touch screen panels—there are about 40 of them on three levels—allows the visitor to look at a cross section of the orbiter and then touch a chosen area to read more about what took place there. Other screens have details on each of the program’s 135 shuttle missions. Small domed kiosks allow visitors to perform a virtual space walk. Climbing a nearby set of stairs, visitors come to a full-size model of the Hubble Space Telescope, larger than a school bus. Information pylons review shuttle missions that were deployed to repair the telescope.
A scale replica of the International Space Station offers smaller, or at least more-agile, guests the opportunity to climb through a clear tube (just like the astronauts do) through a copy of part of the station’s interior.
On the next level, the discussion centers on the orbiter’s reentry and its decline in speed from more than 17,000 mph while orbiting to “just’’ 247 mph as it glided to a landing at the Space Center. To imagine the reentry, during which the pilot had to guide the shuttle through slow S curves to decrease speed, youngsters can trot through a series of curved barriers and plop down on a large slide that descends to the ground level at the same angle of descent the orbiter used.
Various simulators allow guests to operate the Canadarm to remove a payload from the cargo bay, dock the orbiter with the Space Station, land the orbiter at the Cape, and even operate the 400-foot-tall crane that raised and moved the orbiters within the Vehicle Assembly Building. Most of these simulators have time limits. In 2015 KSC installed a new exhibit, located on the ground floor directly beneath Atlantis, that pays tribute to the loss of space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. In addition to personal mementos from the fallen astronauts, the Forever Remembered memorial is the first time that NASA has ever publicly displayed fragments recovered from the destroyed spaceships: A 12-foot section of the Challenger’s body, emblazoned with an American flag, and a window from Columbia’s cockpit, are presented respectfully in a dimly lit hall.
Space Shuttle Atlantis Touring Tips
You might be fascinated by simply staring at the Atlantis as you circle it. But there are about 20 simulators and another 40 or so touch screens, plus brilliantly illustrated static information displays. (Some have tiny panels that attract the attention of grade-schoolers or middle-school viewers for easy science lessons.) You could spend 90 minutes at this attraction, but a number of features at the Visitor Complex are timed, so be careful how you plan your day here. As the park’s newest—and, we think, most impressive—static attraction, the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit is sure to be busy all day long. If you follow our general advice of reaching the park as soon as it opens, head first for Space Shuttle Atlantis. Then take a bus tour(s) or view an IMAX film, and perhaps you’ll want to return to Atlantis in the late afternoon, when attendance at the Space Center has thinned. Remember, there are dozens of hands-on exhibits surrounding the orbiter.
Beyond Disney: The Unofficial Guide to SeaWorld, Universal Orlando, & the Best of Central Florida by Bob Sehlinger and Seth Kubersky features a complete review of all there is to see at the Kennedy Space Center.
President Obama and his family seeing Space Shuttle Atlantis as they visit Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Friday, April 29, 2011.: By NASA/Bill Ingalls [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons