"Is it still flying?"
I have been asked that question many times. Back in 2011, I was proud to answer "yes." But the answer is now "no," which angers many in the space community, and also leads some portion of the public to believe that NASA is dead.
That is, of course, not true. Manned spaceflight, which is what most people think of when they hear NASA, is in a lull. But fans of America's ongoing national space program point to the amazing robotics work NASA continues to do on other worlds, as well as our constant presence on the International Space Station.
"Did that really fly in space?"
That's the question I heard most this weekend, at the grand opening of the space shuttle Atlantis exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex.
Kennedy Space Center (KSC) has changed, as have NASA's future manned spaceflight goals. The entryway at KSC looks more modernized, and now includes a blue globe containing the NASA "meatball" logo and a water feature with a quote from President John F. Kennedy. The new entryway leads directly into the rocket garden, wowing visitors with a sense of the origins of spaceflight.
KSC stores many important NASA artifacts, one of which is housed in its very own building about three miles from launch pad 39A: the Saturn V rocket which sent Apollo astronauts toward the moon.
One of the space shuttles is now among those historic (and very large) space artifacts housed at the Florida space center. KSC was one of four locations chosen to receive an orbiter, along with the California Science Center, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. Kennedy ended up with the final shuttle to take flight, Atlantis. You would think it would be difficult to beat a moon rocket laying on its side, separated into segments, as the Saturn V rocket is in its display. But I can assure you, they topped this when they set up the Atlantis display.
When you're heading towards the Kennedy Space Center, before KSC even comes into view—from a distance of about five miles away—you can see a tall structure that's different from the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building. As you get closer, a part of the main entryway into the Atlantis exhibit becomes visible: two model solid rocket boosters and a model orange external tank stand at the exhibit entryway. These amazing replicas, with measurements matching those of the originals they were modeled after, towers 185 feet, with a walkway underneath the large tank. Lights on the floor outline the diameter of the tank, giving you a sense of scale.
As you enter the building, a large ramp spirals through the complex. Visitors pass by quotes from people who flew on or worked with the shuttle. You truly get an idea of how much respect these people had for their jobs. The shuttle program carried a sense of grandeur they all felt, and these people knew the historical significance of their work. They made the world's most complex moving machine fly pretty much flawlessly.
As you pass through those quotes, and a wall of windows looking out at the space center, you enter what appears to be a staging area. There is a row of benches in the back and standing room for about 250 people. One part of a wall contains sketches and original designs for the space shuttle. In the center is a video screen. After the room is filled, the lights dim, and on comes a video which progresses through the design of the shuttle. This includes original models, tests on those models, and live-action recreations. It all leads up to just before the launch of STS-1, where the movie stops and doors open to reveal another theater.
WARNING: These next three paragraphs contain spoilers. If you don't want to know about how guests are first introduced to the shuttle, please skip this. You've been warned.
The theater is standing-room only, and contains a main video screen in the front, as well as five strips of screen that arc from the left side of the room, curving at the ceiling, and continue to the opposite wall, filling the entire room. As the video begins with the launch of STS-1, the bass kicks in, bringing back instant memories to the vibrations felt during a shuttle launch. The multiple monitors continue to display different segments of video such as launches of each of the five flown orbiters. Most of the time, the screens are linked together, showing an animation of the inside of the shuttle or the view from inside a spacesuit.
Near the end of the video, you see the final landing of Atlantis. The screen then fades to an image of Earth. The first test model of the space shuttle, which was shown in the pre-video, makes another appearance in the foreground, and is then suddenly silhouetted by an image of space shuttle Atlantis bathed in blue light, looking like its final display position. The picture was so good it felt like I was looking at the actual shuttle. The video concludes, "33 missions, 26 years, over 126 million miles…Atlantis, welcome home."
Suddenly, the video screen rises up, revealing that the image of the shuttle was in fact the actual exhibit. The orbiter is then changed from the gorgeous blue light, which gave it the appearance of being in the shadow of Earth, to the white spotlights emphasizing many of Atlantis' features.
As the screen rose, the crowd of 250 inside the theater applauded, hooted and hollered. Everyone was screaming with delight. Some members of the public put their hands over their mouth in shock. Some whispered or shouted phrases like, "Oh my, wow!"
Many emerged obviously overcome with emotion. One of them was former astronaut and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana. As he left the theater, he could not speak. He was pushed along by the staff trying to set up the press conference that he was taking part in. Yet, throughout that whole time, he remained in stunned silence.
"Wow, huh," Cabana asked. "Isn't that a wow? Today's the first day I got to see the two movies, and I'll be honest, it brought a tear to my eye. It's truly amazing."
As you exit the theater, you approach the nose of Atlantis. The lighting above the exhibit constantly shifts to change the viewing experience. As you proceed to the right of the nose, the spectacular work of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex and their parent company, Delaware North, becomes evident. The white thermal blanket that covers much the top of the orbiter is so close that you can see detail in it, and even the minor scorch marks left on most of Atlantis as a sign of her final, fiery reentry.
Moving along through the exhibit, the payload bay doors are opened, revealing the cargo bay. There are no payloads inside, but a docking ring remains. The robotic arm, affectionately called Canadarm for the country who built it, is extended over the walkway. Visitors can see inside the arm that grappled many historic pieces of space history, including the Hubble Space Telescope, which also has a full-scale model on display. Getting those doors open was a challenge, however, as they were never designed to open in 1G (one gravity) without the help of special counterweights which had already been removed.
"I told Bill [Moore, Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex COO], 'you better not damage those doors doing this' and he didn't," Cabana said.
The exhibit is designed to make it look like Atlantis is flying in space. On a screen just behind the tail, video of orbits around Earth play, including transitions between night and day.
The shuttle is tilted on its side, at a precise angle of 43.21º. This angle was selected through precise computer simulations, according to Moore.
However, I, as a space writer, find it too much of a coincidence that this number would be perfect for a countdown.
The exhibit continues down a large ramp which passes by a play area for kids designed like the ISS, as well as patches for all of Atlantis' 33 missions. As you continue on, the hallway shifts to a glowing orange and red, as if you were now experiencing the shuttle's fiery reentry into Earth's atmosphere. At the end of that hallway is a blue slide, which is accessed through a maze similar to the S-turns the shuttle made before landing. The slide is at an angle of 22º, which is similar to the actual descent rate of the orbiter (although people were flying off the end too fast. so it was closed on opening day). If you choose not to take the slide, the hallway continues into a blue light as you "reenter Earth," and ends with an image of Atlantis' final landing.
On this level the black thermal tiles are all clearly visible with the shuttle tilted sideways. A mirror reflects an image of the tip of the left wing, which is one of the closest points you can get to Atlantis, especially on the first floor. The exhibit on that level contains more stunning views of Atlantis, as well as information on the ISS, life aboard station and shuttle, and historical artifacts like the Astrovan and the "beanie cap" which fueled the shuttle. Also on display is one of the set of landing gear from the last shuttle mission, STS-135.
The wheel is unprotected, allowing visitors to touch it, give it a spin, and as some daring participants did, stand on it (but it is highly advised you DO NOT do this!).
The grand opening event on Saturday, June 29, 2013 included the attendance of an impressive 40 astronauts. One astronaut from each of Atlantis' missions was present, and they were featured in grand fashion at the ceremony, which concluded with four VIPs, including NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, hitting "launch buttons." As the buttons were pressed, small fireworks shot out from the back of the solid rocket boosters, followed by a large puff of smoke as the countdown that began hit zero.
For some of those astronauts, seeing the exhibit left them both amazed, yet disappointed.
"[Those of us who flew the shuttle] hope that we were able to make a contribution to the nation's space program," said five-time shuttle flier Jim Halsell. "So naturally it's bittersweet to see the vehicles retired to museums—though as some of the scientists say around here, it's not the end it's just the beginning."
For those who go to see the Atlantis exhibit at KSC, I have one piece of advice: be proud. The amazingly complex and beautiful piece of machinery on display is not only the pride of a nation, but the pride of the world, having carried astronauts of diverse ethnicities, genders, and nationalities into space.
The individuals who worked on the orbiter are heroes just as much as the people who flew the bird.
"If seeing this doesn't work in inspiring you, what will," astronaut Ken Ham said.
Over 30 years, the shuttle accomplished many major achievements in science, technology, and exploration. However, its mission is not over.
"Is it still flying?"
Maybe not in space, but on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center, it has started flying its next mission of education.
"Atlantis' voyage has not ended," Moore said. "In fact it has just begun. Whether you call it STS-136 or a new mission, it really doesn't matter. Atlantis being here is just the beginning to educate and inspire an entire future generation of space explorers."
Previously by Sawyer Rosenstein on Boing Boing:
• Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit at Kennedy Space Center: photos from opening night
• Don't tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon.