As big fans of Kennedy Space Center and the NASA program, we were honoured to attend Atlantis’ coming-out party, including a sneak-peek at the main attraction and its interactive displays. The event began with a gala dinner on the eve of Atlantis’ debut, culminating in a grand opening the next morning attended by 48 astronauts celebrating the ‘guest of honour’.
Situated in the building’s courtyard, the exhibit’s full-scale twin solid rocket boosters and massive orange external fuel tank can be seen from a mile away. Up close, it’s difficult to imagine a more impressive entry, especially when viewed from underneath the external tank as the clouds roll by, creating a distinct sensation of the earth rolling beneath you in its gentle, timeless spin.
Once through the doors, a ramp leads up to the pre-show movie telling the story of the shuttle’s creation, from concept glider to the world’s first reusable spacecraft. Moving into a second room, the story of the shuttle’s service unfolds, including its role in creating the International Space Station. And then, Atlantis sweeps dramatically across the screen, leading to the grand reveal. We challenge you to remain dry-eyed as you come face-to-nose with this triumph of engineering, so close you can almost hear her breathing.
Astronaut Jon McBride, formerly a Top Gun Navy pilot in Vietnam and recipient of numerous Special Honours, spent time with us that evening, sharing his experiences as a shuttle pilot and commander. As he spoke it became apparent McBride is a humble man, in spite of his accomplishments. But he was not without a sense of humour, saying, “I love to brag that I’ve flown everything from the Goodyear blimp to the space shuttle.”
With Atlantis ‘soaring’ above us, pitched at 43.21 degrees (signifying the countdown of 4-3-2-1) McBride said, “I joined NASA in 1978 in the first class chosen to fly these things. We call ourselves the TFNG, ‘thirty-five new guys’. You can mention TFNG anywhere around America and they’ll know who you’re talking about. I was blessed to be in such a great group of people.”
Reflecting on his first mission as pilot, McBride said, “The most memorable moment for me was 45 minutes after launch we were on the other side of the earth—it takes an hour and a half to go around—and we were over Australia. It was my job as pilot to push all the buttons and make the payload bay open. I hadn’t seen Earth from space, so I hit the button and those doors start opening and, my god, I hadn’t even thought of it but we were over Australia! Forty-five minutes ago I was in Florida. As the doors got wider I could see all the way from Perth to Sydney. The whole continent of Australia. I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest. It was a magical moment, and it just got better for the whole trip.”
McBride’s dreams of space flight came true, and he is dedicated to supporting school children with a similar dream. “When I talk to kids I tell them, ‘Don’t think you can’t do anything you want to do. But don’t wait all your life to make your decision. Start thinking about it right now. Set your goals pretty high and there’s no reason you can’t get to them. I did it. I think anybody can do it if they’re willing to work hard.
“This thing we’ve created here is almost as spectacular as being in space yourself,” he added, looking fondly up on Atlantis. “When I went through that show for the first time I had tears in my eyes. I’m not a very emotional person normally, but thinking back over the experiences and the wonderful life I’ve had, that really captured it. I don’t know how you can get much better than that reveal.”
We aren’t going to give away the reveal McBride mentions, but we, and many of our fellow viewers, also had tears in our eyes. It is a magnificent moment; the “WOW” factor no ride, no attraction, no other experience can give, by the simple fact that it’s real.
Atlantis makes her grand debut
The next morning the official Grand Opening took place, with Gemini and Apollo veteran Dick Gordon leading a procession of Space Shuttle veterans. Astronaut Charlie Bolden, now NASA Administrator, had this to say about Atlantis: “It’s not like a vehicle, it’s like a person. It has been a dear friend that has taken us to places we could never dream of and it has brought us safely home again. I will never forget the thrill of flying my first mission aboard her, and the amazing support we had from everyone involved in the programme.”
In dedicating the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit, Chief Operating Officer Bill Moore stated, “We celebrate her final stop, but not her final mission. This is the only place in the world where you can see the shuttle with its payload doors open, and her new mission is just beginning—to educate and inspire a whole new generation of space explorers.” Kennedy Space Center Director, Bob Cabana added, “Now we are going on to the moon, the asteroids, Mars, and beyond, because that’s what we do.”
When the speeches were made and congratulations given, it was time to ‘launch’ Atlantis. A massive boom rung out, sparks shot across the ground, and great clouds of steam billowed up, as if the solid rocket boosters towering above us had been engaged and Atlantis was about to embark on yet another mission. But this time her mission would be one of inspiration rather than exploration; a journey toward the future through her influence on the minds and spirits of young visitors who view her and wonder if they might one day lend their intellectual might to the space programme.
Kennedy Space Center's Atlantis Space Shuttle Exhibit officially opened to the public on Saturday 29th June. To witness the spectacular shuttle and experience this highly anticipated exhibit on your Orlando holiday, check out Attraction Tickets Direct's range of Kennedy Space Centre tickets.
Simon and Susan Veness will be back with their Orlando Theme Park Round-Up on the Attraction Tickets Direct Latest News on Friday!