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Kennedy Space Center: Progress on Atlantis exhibit, inside and out

Kennedy Space Center Vistor Complex guests can now see parts of the entrance to the upcoming Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction peeking over construction walls. Work continues inside and out on the $100 million structure, set for its grand opening on June 29.

Outside, the replica solid rocket boosters are being lofted into place by crane, standing on end, segment by segment. They will be joined by a lifesize model of the orange external tank. This gateway will top out at 184 feet high, right there in the neighborhood of Orlando's highest theme park structures such as Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

Inside, Atlantis has been lifted into position at jaunty 43-degree angle and shrink-wrapped while the building's other attributes are completed.

We took a hard-hat tour of the site with Tim Macy, director of project development and construction, and other KSC officials. We came away with a payload of factoids about the making of the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction, which will be included with regular admission.

+ The cones that top off the models of the solid rocket boosters are scheduled to be placed on April 23. The last pieces to be added will be the "aft skirts" at the bottom. Right now the lowest level is open to allow breeze to and access for the workers inside the steel-and-fiberglass shafts. When the external tank is added, it will be about 24 feet off the ground.

+ The booster rockets should tower over the building, which is 55 feet high.

+ The entrance piece is hurricane-ready. Fifty-four piers go 50 feet into the ground in a spiraling formation, sort of clawing into the sand and limestone below.

+ The design plan uses the iconic solid rocket boosters and external tank to draw people to the iconic shuttle inside, Macy says.

+ Once the Atlantis attraction is complete, guests will walk past the entrance piece, into doors, up a ramp into a theater for a filmed presentation. After that, folks will exit and see a model of the Hubble Space Telescope (about the size of a school bus). Just beyond that will be the suspended space shuttle Atlantis.

+ Upstairs there will be two levels of viewing the orbiter. The higher of the two will feature "augmented reality" screens that demonstrate various portions of the shuttle.

+ Atlantis is positioned at an angle as it might be seen after undocking from the International Space Station ... but its payload doors will be open. They will be held in position by cables strung from the ceiling. The theatrical lighting of the space and dark ceilings should make the attachments practically invisible.

"She'll be beautiful. She'll glow. I promise you, she'll glow," Macy says.

+ Of course, the shuttle wasn't built for everyday foot traffic or crowds, so no one will be allowed to board Atlantis. In fact, there will be no touching -- it hangs tantilizingly just out of reach on both the upper and lower levels.

+ But it's the real thing, a genuine spacecraft right there, just out of reach. "I'm really interested in seeing people's reaction to a real piece of equipment," Macy says.

+ Behind the vessel is a giant screen that will show an endless loop of space scenes, giving Atlantis an in-flight look. The loop is timed to sync with the movie shown in the theater.

+ When the shrink wrap is removed, folks will see a nitty, gritty Atlantis, complete with burn marks. "People don't realize how rough it is," Macy says.

+ The attraction won't just be a garage for Atlantis. It will include dozens of interactive exhibits with a science bent, including a game where folks collect enough hydrogen and oxygen molecules to "launch" the shuttle. A slide from the upper level to the lower level simulates the wide-S curves the shuttles made to slow down to land, plus it has a little bump that represents that brief nose-up portion of the landing. (Yes, adults, will be able to use the slide as well). One display will answer the burning question "How do astronauts use the bathroom in space?" Apparently, this requires some practice.

+ Once complete, the entrance to KSC's Shuttle Launch Experience attraction will be inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis building as well.

+ Finally, in fine Central Florida tradition, guests will exit through a gift shop.






Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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