On a Mission with Space Shuttle Atlantis

The orbiters of the Space Shuttle Program (Sandra Friend)

The orbiters of the Space Shuttle Program

Every morning, I wake up looking at a Space Shuttle, a career space worker by my side. The model reminds John of his 33 years with the program. Where we dine with his parents, photographs of launches and astronauts grace the walls. When the sheriff’s car goes past, the logo includes a Space Shuttle. In this part of Florida, you’re constantly faced with reminders of how deeply local lives are intertwined with space.

There is no mistaking the shape and size of the solid rocket boosters that lifted each orbiter and bright orange fuel tank off the launch pad. As I walked through the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, a replica of these towering icons beckoned the way to Space Shuttle Atlantis. Pausing at the door to read the dedication plaque, I choked up as I walked up the ramps to join the rest of the group. Each step revealed another quote, another scene, another ordinary person who’d dedicated their life to this program.

Space Shuttle Atlantis dedication plaque (Sandra Friend)

Space Shuttle Atlantis dedication plaque

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The US Space Shuttle Program meant a lot to you.
  • You grew up wanting to be an astronaut.
  • You’re fascinated by space.

A Program Like No Other

STS-1, 1981

John on STS-1, 1981 (front, third from left)

Thirty years. Six spacecraft. 135 missions. Unlike the manned programs that laid its foundation, the Space Shuttle program had a different vision, one of facilitating everyday work in space. In 1969, Dr. Max Faget shared his dream – and prototype – of a reusable spacecraft that would “launch like a rocket, land like an airplane, and be reusable.” It took the next 12 years to refine designs, create and test components, and test the first orbiter – Enterprise, named for the starship in Star Trek – to ensure that landing on a landing strip would be feasible. John hired on as a mechanic working with Enterprise, and served on the landing crews for the first nine missions, watching Columbia blast into space on April 12, 1981 as the first live test mission of the program. He worked on all of the orbiters at different points in different jobs throughout his career.

As you enter Space Shuttle Atlantis, two theater performances convey the story, from conception to first launch, with the final moments immersing you in what it felt like to be present in the program – watching a launch, working with the orbiter, flying through space with the astronauts, and experiencing that sonic boom that we Floridians grew accustomed to hearing. When the curtain opens on Atlantis, you’re nose-to-nose with history, in a state of awe.

Nose-to-nose with Atlantis (Sandra Friend)

Coming nose-to-nose with Atlantis for the first time

Atlantis, the Cornerstone

Atlantis with Orbital Sunrise (Kennedy Space Center/NASA)

Atlantis with Orbital Sunrise (Kennedy Space Center/NASA)

Atlantis flew 33 missions, from STS-51J in October 1985 to STS-135 in July 2011, the final mission of the program. Her maiden voyage was to deploy a classified military payload, and yes, you could fit a school bus inside that payload bay. She docked with the Russian space station Mir on seven missions, and carried critical pieces of the International Space Station into orbit for assembly. After 26 years and more than 126 million miles of service, she shows dings and burn marks from re-entry across her tiles.

Suspended as if in orbit at a 43.21° angle, with a video wall of space scenes behind her and her payload doors open, Atlantis dominates all levels of the six-story, 90,000 square foot building. Each gallery focuses on a different aspect of the Space Shuttle program while providing a different perspective on Atlantis, from above, from both ends, and from below. At several vantage points, you’re close enough to read the serial numbers off the tiles.

Viewing STS-3 information (Sandra Friend)

Viewing STS-3 history on the interactive screens. On landing crew, John is in one of the trucks in the cloud of dust in the distance.

A short flight of stairs up and you’re in the On Orbit Gallery, where a bank of interactive computer screens stands at the ready to reveal her inner workings. Use Inside Atlantis to scan across the orbiter and discover the systems inside. The Atlantis 360° touchscreens let you zoom into a particular part of the flight deck and discover the functions and acronyms for thousands of components. I spent the most time with the STS Timeline, digging into mission histories complete with historic footage and photographs of crew members.

Following the flow of exhibits to the lower levels takes you through the descent of the spacecraft from orbit through re-entry and landing. Each twist and turn reveals something new. Reaching ground level, you discover the heart of the process – reusability – and the many steps it took to process each orbiter from landing to the next launch.

We Dream of Space

Shuttle enters the OPF (John Keatley)

A day at work: Endeavour enters the OPF (John Keatley)

Fascinated by space since elementary school, I was part of that generation caught up in the national pride and excitement of putting a man on the moon. I dreamed of being an astronaut, and cheered while watching the launch of STS-7 in 1983, when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.

Before he squeezed inside a Space Shuttle for the first time, John grew up in those “I Dream of Jeanne” days with his dad working at Kennedy Space Center. For thousands, it was, as Elton John sang, “just my job five days a week.” Seven days a week was more common, and the pride and perfection put into the job wasn’t always rewarded. During the Space Shuttle Program, most who worked on the orbiters were contractors. Throughout the exhibits, more than 80 people – from wrench-turning mechanics to number-crunchers to engineers and technicians – tell their stories of life on the job through video clips, photographs, and quotations. While kids will still dream of being astronauts, they’ll find out there is a lot more to space exploration, learning it takes a big team – and many steps – to launch a spacecraft.

Atlantis rollover (Sandra Friend)

Atlantis rollover to the Visitor Complex, November 2012

In November 2012, John and his parents and I watched Atlantis roll through Kennedy Space Center, leaving the Orbiter Processing Facility for the last time. She became the focal point for telling the story of the program, with a $100 million dollar LEED-certified building completed around her. While Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center is a self-supporting tourist attraction, it’s also an outreach arm for NASA, an educational facility that tells the story of the United States in space. With the opening of Space Shuttle Atlantis, the story of the Space Shuttle program now has a place of honor.

“It will capture the imagination of another generation,” said Bob Cabana, the Director of Kennedy Space Center. “It was a phenomenal spaceship…and now it’s going to lead a mission of inspiration to future scientists and engineers and explorers.”


    • Opened on June 29, 2013, Space Shuttle Atlantis is the newest of more than a dozen attractions and tours at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Titusville, Florida, an hour east of Orlando.
    • Beyond its 167 exhibits and thousands of artifacts telling the many stories of the Space Shuttle program, Space Shuttle Atlantis includes hands-on activities ranging from a virtual reality space walk and astronaut training simulators to a crawl-through model of the International Space Station (hanging 26 feet above the next level) and a pair of Re-Entry Slides at the steep 22° angle of descent the shuttles used when landing. One large gallery is dedicated to everyday life on the International Space Station, with an interactive media wall updating you on what’s new up there. A preexisting attraction, the Shuttle Launch Experience, is now accessed through the ground floor level of this building.
    • The complex, open 9-5 daily, includes a range of activities from a walk through the historic Rocket Garden to an IMAX theater and interactive play with Angry Birds in Space. General admission $50 adult, $40 ages 3-11, $46 seniors and military, plus a parking fee of $10 auto, $15 RV, $5 motorcycle. For local residents or frequent visitors, annual passes are your best value.

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