By Susan Clary
CAPE CANAVERAL – Col. Robert “Bob” Springer remembers the day he received “the call” in May 1980. He was a pilot giving a base tour to a three-star general and had just touched down at Marine Corps Base Camp LeJeune.
NASA was calling to offer him a job as an astronaut in the new U.S. Space Shuttle Program. Only 19 pilots had been chosen out of 10,000 applicants. He would go on to fly two missions on Space Shuttle Atlantis.
“Maybe I was wearing the right cologne that day,” Springer said. “I’m an ordinary person who had an extraordinary opportunity.”
Fast forward to June 2013. Springer, 71, rests his tall, lean body on a railing at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. His royal blue jacket is decorated with NASA patches.
Springer is here just days before the grand opening of Space Shuttle Atlantis at Cape Canaveral, the $100 million attraction dedicated to the history of his spacecraft.
His eyes water and a wide grin spreads across his face as he watches the astonished expressions of men, women and children. As a 3D IMAX film ends, a large theater door slowly rises, giving the crowd its first glimpse of Atlantis, the shuttle in all its beauty, complete with scars, scorch marks and space dust from her last mission.
“Is it real?” many of them ask, eyes wide, as they slowly walk up to the imposing black and white craft, gazing upward. Yes, it’s real and after launching 33 times into space, it will spend her golden years being adored by thousands of visitors at Kennedy Space Center. The small crowd begins to clap and cheer.
“It’s still hard to believe at times, this is my vehicle, my passion” Springer said. “I hope this inspires the next generation of engineers.”
No one word can describe the new Space Shuttle Atlantis at Cape Canaveral. It so seamlessly wraps together the energy, passion and excitement of the shuttle program with the awe and wonder of space, the unknown, on top of a foundation of history. Let’s tour.
As you approach Space Shuttle Atlantis, it appears like a mid-flight mission. The 6-story, 90,000-square-foot winged structure is covered in 3,000 gray and iridescent orange tiles representing the underside of the orbiter and the fiery glow of launch and re-entry.
Full-size replicas of the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters, needed to launch the shuttle into orbit, reach 184 feet into the air – taller than an 18-story building.
Inside, the shuttle sits atop two steel columns, but gives the appearance it’s floating in space, tilted at a 43-degree angle with landing gear down. The 60-foot long payload bay doors are thrown open, just as they were in space. The tiny black and white tiles that cover her give a padded appearance. Visitors have a 360-degree view.
To complement the $2 billion craft, the attraction incorporates a breathtaking 3D IMAX film with never-before-seen space footage, 167 exhibits and 60 interactive and high-tech experiences.
Dedicated exhibits of the International Space Station and a replica of the Hubble Space Telescope are mainstays. A crowd favorite is an inside look at how Astronauts work, eat, sleep and even use the “space potty.”
Some other highlights:
- The Preshow – Visitors are immediately escorted inside a small standing theater for a film on the evolution of the U.S. Space Shuttle Program, from 1960 to its inception, using a combination of real footage and reenactments.
- 3D IMAX Theater – This theater envelops visitors in a stellar 3D IMAX film, placing them in the shoes of an astronaut preparing for launch. Anticipation mounts with amazing footage of NASA’s five space-flown shuttles – Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. The show ends when Space Shuttle Atlantis appears as a door is raised.
- Hubble Space Telescope Theater – To the right of the shuttle’s nose, sits a replica of Hubble Space Telescope in all its glory. A 40-seat open theater shows highlights of the Hubble program, including its 1990 launch, subsequent repair missions and stunning images of deep space.
- International Space Station Gallery (ISS) – Experience the sensation of floating in space in a replica of the ISS. An interactive touch screen and freestanding pods help recreate components of the station. A media wall tracks the ISS location and posts the crew’s Twitter feed.
- Shuttle Launch Experience – Veteran NASA astronauts helped develop this exhibit, which they have called the next best thing to an actual space shuttle launch. Guests strap in to experience the sights, sounds and sensations of a space shuttle launch.
- Astronaut Training Simulators – Future astronauts can practice landing the orbiter, docking to the ISS and manipulating the robotic “Canadarm” on 21 consoles modeled after actual NASA training simulators.
- On Orbit Gallery – A 24-foot-long interactive timeline brings NASA’s 135 space shuttle missions to life with touch screen searchable data on every launch, landing, astronaut, payload and more. At the rear of Atlantis, is an actual 8,000-pound space shuttle main engine.
- The Re-entry Zone – Visitors can see what it takes for astronauts to land the orbiter as a high-speed glider, creating their own sonic booms and gliding, or rather, sliding, to a landing on the steep slope of the Re-entry Slide.
One of the most impressive features of Space Shuttle Atlantis is the painstaking detail paid by its designers to best showcase their prize. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex was in competition with dozens of museums, science centers and universities across the country for the honor of displaying one of three shuttles.
If you stand for a while and take in the magnificence of the Atlantis, you’ll witness an orbital sunshine every 12 minutes on a 20x110 foot LED screen positioned behind the craft.
It’s patriotism at its best.
If you go…
Space Shuttle Atlantis
Open daily 9 a.m.
Closing times vary by season
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
SR 405, Kennedy Space Center, FL 32899
Admission is $50+ tax for adults and $40+ tax for children ages 3-11.
* Admission includes the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, featuring historic spacecraft and the world's largest collection of personal astronaut memorabilia.
For more information, call 877-313-2610 or visit www.KennedySpaceCenter.com.