Spaceflight Now

Final space shuttle ready for shipment to retirement site

Posted: October 17, 2012

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The final moment resembling normalcy in the space shuttle era at the Kennedy Space Center occurred Wednesday morning as Atlantis rolled from her hangar to the Vehicle Assembly Building, a trek performed 35 times for real in the ship's flying days and now one last time for storage to await transfer to the spaceport's museum Nov. 2.

Atlantis leaves hangar this morning. Credit: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now
Photo gallery from today's rollover

Known in shuttle lingo as "rollover," this quarter-mile move meant a space shuttle launch was coming up. The orbiter would travel next door to the cavernous VAB for attachment to its external fuel tank and twin solid rockets atop a mobile platform. The completed stack would then crawl to the oceanside pad a week later.

But those days are long gone, and Atlantis' move simply vacates the only remaining hangar for its decommissioning.

"We're finally here. When we started working retirement (activities) a year-and-a-half ago, nobody really could visualize this moment. We knew it would get here eventually. Now the time has come and it's a little bit somber this morning," said Stephanie Stilson, NASA's director of shuttle decommissioning.

This shuttle is the last to be transferred to its final resting place -- the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Discovery went to the Smithsonian in April, Enterprise was hoisted aboard the Intrepid in June and Endeavour journeyed through the streets of Los Angeles to the California Science Center just a few days ago.

Atlantis stops outside for employee reception. Credit: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now
Photo gallery from today's rollover

The privately-run KSC Visitor Complex is building a $100 million, 90,000-square-foot attraction to display Atlantis and tell the story of the space shuttle program.

Once Atlantis is hauled down the road to the site Nov. 2, she will be positioned inside the building and the last wall erected behind her. The final 40 percent of construction work on the facility will be completed over the subsequent months before a grand opening next July.

The 152,700-pound Atlantis 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 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.

Read more about the KSCVC display in our previous story.

Atlantis perched on her pedestals. Credit: KSC Visitor Complex
The first step in getting to the museum occurred earlier this week when Atlantis was mounted aboard the 76-wheeled Orbiter Transport System used for hauling shuttles around.

Technicians fired up the OTS this morning just before 8:30 a.m., but then a heavy rainshower blew through and stalled Atlantis' departure from Orbiter Processing Facility bay 2, the western-most of the three hangars, until about 9:40 a.m. EDT.

"You could tell folks aren't ready to see her leave. In fact, we joked during the weather delay 'oh, she's not ready to go, she wants to stay here a little bit longer,'" Stilson said.

The transporter driver followed the blue lines painted on the concrete roadway toward VAB, stopping along the way for about 90 minutes while employees had an emotional gathering to see the ship outside, snapping pictures as tears flowed. They snacked on ice cream provided by Haagen Dazs, recalling a similar morale-boosting ice cream event held in happier times when shuttles were still launching.

Atlantis heads into VAB. Credit: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now
Photo gallery from today's rollover

The rollover resumed a little before 12 noon to enter high bay 4 in the northwest corner of the 52-story landmark building to sit for the next 17 days. Atlantis will be on display inside the VAB via bus tours operated by the KSCVC.

"It would be a very good time to take a VAB tour, and that's the same as we've done with the other vehicles that sat in the Vehicle Assembly Building. No work to be done, but a good opportunity for people to come and see her up close," Stilson said.

All work on retiring Atlantis since her final mission last July is now complete. A veteran of 33 spaceflights, traveling 125,935,769 miles and covering 4,848 orbits during 307 days aloft, the ship has been fully safed and configured for public display.

Getting to the museum 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.

Earlier in the day, around 9:45 a.m., the procession will stop inside the confines of the space center for a NASA ceremony at KSC Headquarters with Administrator Charlie Bolden, KSC Director Bob Cabana, members of Atlantis' final crew and KSCVC Chief Operating Officer Bill Moore.

The day wraps up with a fireworks show at 7 p.m. EDT.