Spaceflight Now

Atlantis hall 2 months away from receiving showpiece

Posted: September 5, 2012

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The massive new building that has sprouted up on the Kennedy Space Center landscape to display the space shuttle Atlantis as a national treasure will receive the spacecraft Nov. 2, officials said Wednesday during a "topping off" ceremony.

The new exhibit hall for Atlantis. Credit: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now
Photo gallery from Wednesday's ceremony

Construction on the sprawling 90,000-square-foot facility to house the orbiter began in January and will be completed for opening to the public during next year's Fourth of July weekend. Workers on Wednesday hoisted the last beam, a 2,000-pound, 38-foot-long steel girder, into position 116 feet above the sandy soil to round out the framework of the $100 million attraction at the privately-run KSC Visitor Complex.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the final beam is in place," Tim Macy, the Visitor Complex's director of project development, said to the applause of construction workers, dignitaries and NASA officials gathered for the milestone event.

"This is going to be a fantastic building. You will be completely immersed in all things shuttle, from how it started, the people who were involved in it and the missions that went off. We'll have exhibits and graphics that are very interactive that will allow you to do as much or as little research on each one of the shuttles," he said.

More than 56,000 man hours have been invested in the building thus far and that number will exceed over 200,000 man hours when it is completed next summer.

"Over the course of the coming months this building will continue to transform because of all of you into the most impressive dedication to the space shuttle program in the world," Cheryl Hurst, KSC's director of education and external relations, told the construction team Wednesday.

Space station display within Atlantis' new home. Credit: KSC Visitor Complex
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A substantial presentation of the International Space Station will greet visitors, plus a full-size replica of the Hubble Space Telescope that spans the first and second floors will be among 62 exhibits in the building. There will also be a small theater and a memorial area for remembrance, Macy said.

To enter Atlantis' home, a building whose name is still under consideration, tourists will walk through the 24-foot-tall opening below a highly realistic external tank mounted between two solid rocket boosters being fabricated to look as life-like as possible.

The 550,000-pound stack will be supported by 52 pilings driven over 45 feet into the ground and cemented into a rigid foundation.

"It is high-fidelity. It'll blow you away," said Macy.

Inside is the star, the shuttle Atlantis that flew into space 33 times, traveling 125,935,769 miles and covering 4,848 orbits during 307 days aloft.

She will be mounted on three pedestals, anchored in place by engaging the same attachment points where the ship rode external tanks on the climb to orbit. The design elevates the spaceplane 18 feet off the floor and tilts Atlantis at an angle of 43.21 degrees, Macy said, for the public to gaze up at the craft's majesty.

The display concept will have the 60-foot-long payload bay doors opened, their weight supported by eight cords connected to the ceiling, to simulate Atlantis still operating in orbit and just departing the International Space Station.

An artist's concept of Atlantis on display. Credit: KSC Visitor Complex
"The idea is it's pulling away from the ISS. We say it's 150 yards away from the ISS, Ku-band antenna out, arm out, bay doors open. It's already let go of its payload, so the bay is wide open," he previewed.

The three flown space shuttles, now retired for museum pieces, are illustrating the different phases of flight in their respective exhibits. Discovery was delivered to the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center outside the nation's capital in April and rests on her landing gear tires, appearing as if the ship just landed and rolled into the hangar. Endeavour is headed to the California Science Center in Los Angeles later this month for an eventual plan to be mounted vertically on a tank and booster rockets as if she was poised to launch again.

"But Atlantis, the last space shuttle to ever fly in space, is going to look like it actually is in space here at the Kennedy Space Center," said KSC Director Bob Cabana.

"The orbiters are special to us. They are family. But this facility is going to tell the 30-year story of an amazing program," said Cabana, a four-time shuttle astronaut.

Atlantis is in the final weeks of the decommissioning and museum preparation activities in her Orbiter Processing Facility hangar. Technicians on Wednesday installed a handcrafted replica airlock and docking compartment that the Visitor Complex had built, replacing the real one removed and kept by NASA.

A classic image of Atlantis. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II

In mid-October, all of the work will be completed and Atlantis gets locked atop the 76-wheeled Orbiter Transport System for one final roll to the Vehicle Assembly Building. She will wait in a storage bay within the cavernous VAB until the appointed day for delivery to her new home.

That delivery begins at 7 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 2, as Atlantis embarks on a 9.8-mile, 11-hour trip down the road to the Visitor Complex.

The trek will take "the scenic route" to bypass the guard shack at the western entrance to the space center, instead going south on State Road 3, then turning east to go by KSC Headquarters, south on Avenue C, back westward on 5th Street to reach Exploration Park around 12:15 p.m. Atlantis will stop there for about three hours on public display before resuming the drive along Space Commerce Way to loop around to the NASA Parkway for the homestretch to the museum. Arrival is expected at 6 p.m.

As with the other retired orbiters, the museums themselves are responsible for moving the spacecraft from the NASA handoff location -- in Atlantis' case, just outside the VAB -- to the final destination.

The Visitor Complex hired a private contractor to drive the transporter and will have United Space Alliance shuttle technicians alongside, Macy said.

Part of the new building's back wall will be left open to get the shuttle inside. Work then begins immediately to finish that construction and ensure the vehicle is within an environmentally-controlled space.

Atlantis perched on her pedestals. Credit: KSC Visitor Complex
"This is a $2 billion, one-of-a-kind, can't-replace-it artifact. We take it very seriously," said Macy. "We don't want her in the sun, we don't want her in the rain. It has flown in space and back, but it's in our care now."

The facility will be about 60 percent complete when Atlantis arrives, as work marches onward for the summer grand opening.

As an added safe guard, the ship will get encased in protective wrapping once inside the building to shield the ship against falling objects that could damage the vehicle as the construction continues around Atlantis.

"Think of it as a super-duper bubble wrap," Macy said.

Next May, that covering will be cleaned, then removed from Atlantis and the payload bay doors opened for the orbiter to live her days in a dust-free environment. Also after the doors swing open, a replica Canadarm will be installed and extended, supported in place by cabling from the ceiling.

But how do you hoist a spaceship off the ground and mount it onto pedestals at a 43.21-degree angle?

"Very carefully! We will spend a lot of time actually lifting it up very slowly -- two-and-a-half inches at a time -- until it gets the right point. Then put it at the right angle," Macy said.

"You know 'This Old House' where they move those old houses, jack it up a little at a time? That process on steroids, with a lot of care and comfort."

KSC's museum has been run by the commercial Delaware North firm since 1995. They also constructed the massive Saturn 5 facility that houses one of the leftover Apollo moon rockets.