Now is Your Last Chance to Visit Inside NASA’s Iconic Vehicle Assembly Building – and maybe see an Orion

NASA’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and Launch Control Center (LCC) at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Public access tours inside the VAB will end on Feb. 11, 2014. NASA’s Apollo Saturn V Moon rockets and Space Shuttles were assembled inside.
Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Story updated- Last chance to visit VAB extended to Feb. 23[/caption]

If you have ever wanted to take a personal trip inside NASA’s world famous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, now is the time.

In fact this is your last chance. Because access to the hugely popular public tours will end very soon. And perhaps you’ll see an Orion test capsule too.

Indeed you only have until Feb. 11 [Update: now extended to Feb. 23] to enjoy the KSC “Up-Close Tour” inside the 52 story tall VAB, according to an announcement by the privately run Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which organizes the VAB tours.

The VAB is an iconic world wide symbol of America’s space program.

And it’s home to many of NASA’s finest and most historic exploration achievements – including all the manned Apollo Moon landings and the three decade long Space Shuttle program that launched the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station (ISS) to orbit.

Why are the interior public tours being halted, barely 2 years after they started?

Because after a bit of a lull following the termination of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, space launch activities are ramping up once again and the agency must complete much needed building renovations to prepare for the next step in human exploration of the cosmos – SLS, Orion and commercial ‘space taxis’.

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The agency needs unfettered use of the VAB to prepare for assembly, lifting and stacking of the new Orion crew capsule and it’s new monster booster rocket – the Space Launch System (SLS) – slated for its maiden blastoff in 2017.

You can always see the 525 foot tall VAB from the outside, gleaming proudly from miles away.

And it’s a must see from up close outside glimpses aboard tour buses driving by all day long – resplendent with a mammoth red, white and blue American flag painted on its side.

But nothing compares to being an eyewitness to history and seeing it from the inside with your own eyes, especially if you are a space enthusiast!

The VAB is one of the largest and most voluminous buildings in the world.

Since 1978, the VAB interior had been off limits to public visitors for more than 30 years during the shuttle era. It was too hazardous to visit because of the presence of the giant shuttle solid rocket boosters loaded with fuel.

Orion Ground Test Article (GTA) recently displayed on the floor inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).    Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orion Ground Test Article (GTA) recently displayed on the floor inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Inside access was finally restored to guests at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in November 2011, following the retirement of the space shuttles.

Visitors could again “see firsthand where monstrous vehicles were assembled for launch, from the very first Saturn V rocket in the late 1960s to the very last space shuttle, STS-135 Atlantis, in 2011.”

Although the shuttles are now gone, there is a possibility that maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see an Orion test capsule that’s been used in real ground testing to help NASA prepare for upcoming missions.

Since the layout is constantly changing, there is no guarantee on seeing the Orion.

Possibly either an Orion boilerplate test article or the Ground Test Article (GTA) which was the first flight worthy Orion capsule to be built. The GTA is the path finding prototype for the Orion EFT-1 capsule currently in final assembly and slated to launch this Fall 2014.

Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to snap a shot like one of mine of the Orion GTA on the floor of the main working area of the VAB – known as the transfer aisle.

You will definitely get the feel for the greatest hits in space history inside the place where the moon rockets and space shuttles were lifted, stacked and assembled for flight and then rolled out to either Launch Pad 39 A or 39 B.

Atlantis approaches the VAB for the final time. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlantis approaches the VAB for the final time during preparations for the STS-135 flight in 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex has been honored to give our guests rare access to the VAB for the past two years, yet we knew that the day would come when preparations for the SLS would take precedent,” said Therrin Protze, chief operating officer for the Visitor Complex, in a statement.

“Kennedy Space Center is an operating space program facility, and preparations for the next chapter in space exploration are the utmost priority, and we are very excited about the future.”

Starting in 2017, America will again launch a mighty rocket – the SLS that will blast Americans to deep space after an unbelievable 50 year gap.

Full belly view of Space Shuttle Discovery coated with thousands of protective heat shield tiles in the transfer aisle of the VAB where it was processed for final launch on STS-133 mission.  Note two rectangular attach points holding left and right side main separation bolts. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Full belly view of Space Shuttle Discovery coated with thousands of protective heat shield tiles in the transfer aisle of the VAB where it was processed for final launch on STS-133 mission. Note two rectangular attach points holding left and right side main separation bolts. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

So for only about the next two weeks, you can see one of the greatest treasures of America’s space program and appreciate the cavernous interior from where our astronauts once set off for the Moon as part of the “Mega Tour”.

The “Mega Tour”, which also included visits to Launch Pad 39 A and the Launch Control Center (LCC) ends on Feb. 11, the visitor complex announced.

However the visitor complex is still offering a modified “Up-Close” tour to Pad 39A and the Launch Control Center (LCC) – at this time. But that’s subject to change at any moment depending on NASA’s priorities.

View of NASA’s 52 story tall Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) as seen from the top of Launch Pad 39 A.    Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
View of NASA’s 52 story tall Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) as seen from the very top of Launch Pad 39 A gantry. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

And don’t forget that you can also see NASA’s genuine Space Shuttle Atlantis in its new permanent exhibition hall at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Please check the visitor center website for complete details and admission pricing on “Up-Close” tours and everything else – www.kennedyspacecenter.com

There is one thing I can guarantee – if you don’t go you will see nothing!

Catch it if you can. It’s NOT coming back any time soon!

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Chang’e-3, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

Space Shuttle Atlantis permanent display at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Space Shuttle Atlantis permanent display at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the Turn Basin adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center Press Center and the countdown clock. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the Turn Basin adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center Press Center and the countdown clock. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Shuttle Replica Departs Kennedy for Ocean Voyage to Houston on a Barge – Enterprise is Next

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A high fidelity replica of a NASA Space Shuttle orbiter has set off today, May 24, on an ocean going voyage by barge for NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This trip by the Shuttle replica gives a taste of what’s to come for the upcoming barge journey by Space Shuttle Enterprise around the southern tip of Manhattan in early June.

The replica model formerly named “Explorer” departed early this morning from the turn basin at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the shadow of the iconic vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where the real Space Shuttles and Apollo Moon rockets were assembled for launch.

The space shuttle replica first moved through the inter-costal waterway and then set sail out from Port Canaveral and into the Atlantic Ocean this afternoon for about a week’s voyage that will take her southwards around the coastline of the Florida peninsula and then into the Gulf of Mexico on a heading for Houston, Texas.

Space Shuttle replica “Explorer” floats on a barge through Port Canaveral and past cruise ships and pleasure boats on the way from KSC to JSC in Houston. Credit: Kirby Corporation

The shuttle model was towed onto the barge at KSC Tuesday afternoon (May 23) by Beyel Bros. Crane and Rigging who are responsible for loading it. Beyel workers then welded the shuttle model to the deck of the barge.

None of the real space shuttles had ever been located at this position at KSC before near the VAB and waterways and provided truly amazing and unique photographic opportunities.

Space Shuttle replica “Explorer” towed onto a barge at the Kennedy Space Center has set sail for her permanent new museum display home at the visitor complex at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The full scale replica – with the moniker Explorer removed – is being transported to her permanent new home at Space Center Houston, the visitor complex at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas.

It will arrive in Houston around June 1, depending on the weather, where a free three day public arrival welcome “Shuttlebration Weekend” is planned.

Space Shuttle replica “Explorer” on a barge at the Kennedy Space Center near the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (left) where the real shuttles were processed for space missions. Explorer is sailing to her new home at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Credit: Ken Kremer

The Explorer had been on display alongside a gantry like tower at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) since 1993 and was enjoyed by millions of tourists since then along with full scale replica versions of the shuttle’s twin solid rocket boosters and huge external fuel tank.

The Explorer model was built was built in Apopka, Fla., by Guard Lee using schematics and blueprints provided by NASA. It’s the next best thing to having a real space shuttle. The model’s length is 122.7 feet, its height is 54 feet, and its wingspan is 78 feet.

Having been up close and inside all three of NASA’s real space shuttles, I can say that the Explorer mockup is an excellent representation of the genuine shuttle orbiters and gives a realistic sense of the airframe, heat shield tiles, cockpit and cavernous cargo bay. At KSCVC, visitors could see directly into the cargo bay housing a satellite. The Michelin wheels were genuine and had actually flown in space.

The Explorer was moved out from Kennedy’s Visitor Center on a 144 wheeled trailer in December 2011 by Beyel Bros to make way for Space Shuttle Atlantis. Atlantis will be towed to the KSC Visitor Complex in November 2012. The Visitor Complex is constructing a humongous permanent new display hall for Atlantis which is slated to open in 2013.

The Space Shuttle program was forcibly shutdown for lack of money at the direction of politicians in Washington DC after the final flight, STS-135, lifted off in July 2011, leaving the US with no capability to transport astronauts or cargo to the International Space Station since then.

The two other remaining space flown shuttles were assigned to museum locations near Washington, DC and Los Angeles. Discovery has already departed in April 2012, flying atop a 747 Jumbo Jet to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Annex outside Washington, DC.

The Endeavour will take the last cross country airplane trip of the shuttle program in September to her permanent new resting place at the California Science Museum. The Shuttle prototype orbiter Enterprise will be displayed at the Intrepid Air, Sea and Space Museum in New York City starting in mid-July 2012.

The Explorer is a consolation prize of sorts for the Johnson Space Center (JSC), which lost out on the nationwide bidding to display the three now retired NASA Space Shuttles.

JSC was home to the training facilities for the Space Shuttle crews and home to the NASA astronauts who flew aboard the five shuttle orbiters for the 30 year life of the Space Shuttle program. Many folks feel JSC was shortchanged in the shuttle museum home selections process.

On Sunday, June 3, the replica shuttle will arrive at Space Center Houston where it eventually will become part of a unique display telling the story of the Space Shuttle’s achievements and the nationwide team that made them possible. Further details about Space Center Houston – here

Ken Kremer

Shuttle Discovery Mated to 747 Carrier for her Final Flight to Smithsonian Home

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Following a busy weekend of work, Space Shuttle Discovery is now attached piggyback style to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and all set for the final flight to her ultimate resting place at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia on Tuesday April 17. There she will reside on permanent display for the public just a short distance outside Washington D.C.

In the predawn hours on Saturday (April 14), Discovery was towed for the last time to the Mate- Demate Device (MDD) at the Shuttle Landing Facility and NASA’s specially outfitted Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet awaiting her in Florida. But howling winds in the subsequent hours delayed the hoist and mate on the back of the huge carrier plane.

Today (Sunday, April 15), the winds calmed and technicians raised Discovery and mechanically bolted her atop the SCA jet, designated NASA 905.

“It may have taken two days because of weather, but Discovery was attached to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft today (April 15),” NASA KSC spokesman Allard Beutel told Universe Today after the mating operation was finished.

“And we’re on track to give Discovery a proper send off to its new home on Tuesday morning.”

NASA 905 will carry out all the remaining flights to ferry Space Shuttles Discovery, Enterprise and Endeavour to their permanent museum sites in Virginia, New York and California. The last remaining shuttle – Atlantis – will be towed later this year to her new home a few miles down the road at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Towing Discovery into the mate/demate device at the Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The initial mating of Discovery and the SCA in the mate/demate device was completed at about 11:15 a.m. EDT. The shuttle was finally secured to the carrier jet a few hours later on Sunday afternoon and will be backed out of the MDD on Monday, April 16.

NASA 905 will lift off at about 7 a.m. to ferry Discovery to the Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia on April 17 with a planned arrival between 10 to 11 a.m. depending on weather.

If you spot the shuttle along the way, send Ken your photos to post here at Universe Today.

The SCA will fly over multiple locations from Washington, DC to the Udvar-Hazy Center as low as 1500 feet for the public to enjoy before finally landing at Dulles Airport.

Ken hopes to be on hand at the Udvar-Hazy Center for Universe Today

Discovery’s final departure from the Kennedy Space Center marks a bittersweet time for all who worked on the shuttle program as well as fans and advocates of space exploration across the globe.

3 Generations of NASA’s Mars Rovers

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NASA Mars rovers have come a long way in terms of size and capability since the rebirth of Red Planet surface exploration just 15 years ago – spanning from 1997 to 2012.

To get a really excellent sense of just how far America’s scientists and engineers have pushed the state of the art in such a short time – when the willpower and funding existed and coincided to explore another world – take a good look at the new pictures here showing 3 generations of NASA’s Mars rovers; namely Mars Pathfinder (MPF), the 1st generation Mars rover, Mars Exploration Rover (MER), the 2nd generation, and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the 3rd and newest generation Mars rover.

The newly released pictures graphically display a side by side comparison of the flight spare for Mars Pathfinder (1997 landing) and full scale test rovers of the Mars Exploration Rover (2004 landing) and Mars Science Laboratory (in transit for a 2012 planned landing). The setting is inside the “Mars Yard” at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. where the teams conduct mission simulations.

It’s been nothing less than a quantum leap in advancement of the scientific and technological capability from one generation to the next.

Sojourner - NASA’s 1st Mars Rover
Sojourner takes an Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) measurement of Yogi rock after Red Planet landing on July 4, 1997 landing. Sojourner was only 2 feet long, the size of a microwave oven.
Credit: NASA

Just consider the big increase in size – growing from a microwave oven to a car !

The “Marie Curie” flight spare and the actual “Sojourner” rover on Mars are 2 feet (65 centimeters) long – about the size of a microwave oven. The MER rovers “Spirit and Opportunity” and the “Surface System Test Bed” rover are 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) long – about the size of a golf cart. The MSL “Curiosity” and the “Vehicle System Test Bed” rover are 10 feet (3 meters) long – about the size of a car.

Side view of Three Generations of Mars Rovers
Front; flight spare for the first Mars rover, Sojourner. Left; Mars Exploration Rover Project test rover. Right; Mars Science Laboratory test rover Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With your own eyes you can see the rapid and huge generational change in Mars rovers if you have the opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and stroll by the Mars exhibit with full scale models of all three of NASA’s Red Planet rovers.

At the KSC Visitor Complex in Florida you can get within touching distance of the Martian Family of Rovers and the generational differences in size and complexity becomes personally obvious and impressive.

NASA’s Family of Mars rovers at the Kennedy Space Center
Full scale models on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Curiosity and Spirit/Opportunity are pictured here. Sojourner out of view. Credit: Ken Kremer

All of the Mars rovers blasted off from launch pads on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity launched atop Delta II rockets at Space Launch Complex 17 in 1996 and 2003. Curiosity launched atop an Atlas V at Space Launch Complex 41 in 2011.

Three Generations of Mars Rovers with Standing Mars Engineers
The rovers are pictured here with real Mars Engineers to get a sense of size and perspective. Front rover is the flight spare for the first Mars rover, Sojourner. At left is a Mars Exploration Rover Project test rover, working sibling to Spirit and Opportunity. At right is a Mars Science Laboratory test rover the size of Curiosity which is targeting a August 2012 Mars landing. The Mars engineers are JPL's Matt Robinson, left, and Wesley Kuykendall. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity is still exploring Mars to this day – 8 years after landing on the Red Planet, with a warranty of merely 90 Martian days.

Curiosity is scheduled to touch down inside Gale crater on 6 August 2012.

So, what comes next ? Will there be a 4th Generation Mars rover ?

Stay tuned – only time and budgets will tell.

Don’t Annoy the Vulcan and Other Lessons at KSC’s “Sci-Fi Summer”

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida is looking to take guests where no one has gone before. During the “Sci-Fi Summer” that is going on now through September at the Visitor Complex guests can see, sit and experience actual artifacts that appeared in the hit TV series and motion pictures.

With a smirk and a wink, Lt. Cmdr. Hawk guides guests on the tour of the exhibit. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Guests are greeted by two Starfleet officers; today they were Lieutenant Commander “Hawk” and T’Lanna. Both of whom were part of Starfleet’s temporal division. The fact that they were in the 21st Century and escorting guests around appeared to be a sore point with them – but more on that later.

Your other guide is T'lanna - knowledgeable - but has a bit of a temper. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Throughout the Visitor Complex were items from the Star Trek Franchise. The original TV series was represented by the bridge of the Enterprise. Contained within the IMAX building, also has the portal from the original series episode “City on the Edge of Forever.” That is just a small part of the display that is spread throughout the Visitor Complex. One can even find the Scorpion Attack Fighter from Star Trek: Nemesis.

Subtly, here and there the operators of the complex show how science fiction and science fact are tied together. One in particular is a display showing size comparisons between Star Trek vessels and modern spacecraft including the International Space Station and the Saturn V rocket. This allows guests to see how fantasy relates to reality.

“There has always been a kind of synergy between science fiction and science fact, especially with the Star Trek franchise,” said Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex Public Relations Manager Andrea Farmer. “We wanted to highlight and honor this – which is one reason we decided to extend the exhibit past summer.”

For both fans and non-fans alike, the exhibit is an addition that makes a trip to the Visitor Complex all the more entertaining. Just heed this advice – be nice to the Vulcan…

Atlantis Final Crew and NASA thank Shuttle Workforce with space flown Tribute Banner

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Following the majestic predawn touchdown of Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to close out the Space Shuttle Era, the final crew of Atlantis, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and KSC Director Bob Cabana thanked the Space Shuttle workforce for their dedication and hard work at an employee appreciation event held outside the processing hangers where the orbiters were prepared for the 135 shuttle missions flown by NASA over more than thirty years.

The four person crew of Atlantis on the STS-135 mission flew a special commemorative banner millions of miles to the International Space Station and back in honor of the thousands of workers who processed, launched and landed America’s five space shuttles. They unfurled the banner at the employee event at KSC in tribute to the shuttle workers.

“It’s great to be here in sunny Florida,” said STS 135 Commander Chris Ferguson. “Mike Leinbach [ the Space Shuttle Launch Director] said there was no way he’d let us land in California.”

“We want to express our gratitude on behalf of the astronaut office for everything you have done here at KSC, the safety you have built into the vehicles, the meticulous care that you take of the orbiter. As soon as we got on orbit, I was absolutely amazed that everything in Atlantis works so well. Everything looks beautiful on the inside.”

STS-135 crew and space flown tribute banner to Space Shuttle workforce. Credit: NASA

“I hope you all believe that every time we go, we take a little bit of every one of you with us,” Ferguson emphasized.

Atlantis was parked at the event as a backdrop for photo opportunities with the thousands of shuttle workers in attendance – along with over a hundred journalists including the Universe Today team of Alan Walters and Ken Kremer.

“Like Chris said, our one landing option was getting back to Florida and you all rather than anywhere else. It felt like being home again. Thank you for everything you have all done over the last 30+ years,” said Doug Hurley.

“We treated Atlantis with the utmost respect because we see firsthand how you process this vehicle and it is your baby,” said Rex Waldheim. “It is clean and well cared for. We did that for you because you all did such a great job preparing it for us.”

“You are such a special work force,” added Sandy Magnus. “There is no workforce like the space program workforce anywhere in the world. The pride, care, dedication and passion you take in your work is what makes it possible to have these very challenging missions and to succeed. You have to do everything right all of the time. And you DO. And you make it look easy!! Congratulations!”

The STS-135 crew then unfurled the colorful banner taken to the ISS aboard Atlantis to commemorate NASA’s Space Shuttle Era.

“We took this banner with us to space and this is our way of telling you that you guys rock ! We will present this to Mike Leinbach and Bob Cabana as just a small token of our appreciation for all the work you’ve done for us. Thank you for such a wonderful vehicle,” Ferguson summed up.

KSC Director Bob Cabana thanks the Shuttle Workforce. Credit Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com)

The crew then waved good bye to the thousands of shuttle workers, posed with Atlantis one last time and departed with their families for a homecoming celebration at their training base at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Atlantis was then towed a few hundred yards (meters) and came to rest inside the Orbiter Processing Facility to conclude her final spaceflight journey as the last of NASA’s flight worthy Space Shuttle Orbiters. She has began decommissioning activities due to last several months to prepare for her future retirement home at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) just a few miles (km) away.

STS-135 crew pose with Atlantis and wave farewell to shuttle workforce at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com

Atlantis permanent new abode at KSCVC is set to open in 2013 where she will be genuinely displayed bearing scorch marks from reentry and as though “In Flight” with payload bays doors wide open for the general public to experience reality up close.

For some 1500 shuttle workers, the day’s proceedings were both joyous and bittersweet – as their last full day of employment and last chance to bask in the glow of the triumphant conclusion of the Shuttle Era.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden congratulates the Shuttle Workforce. Credit Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com)
STS-135 say farewell to Atlantis and shuttle workforce at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA shuttle workers welcome STS-135 crew at employee appreciation event. Credit Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com)

‘In Flight’ Shuttle Orbiter retirement display planned by Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

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‘In Flight’ …. That’s the heart of the dramatic plan to showcase a Space Shuttle Orbiter being proposed by the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) as they seek to win the heated competition to become the permanent new home to one of NASA’s three soon to be retired Orbiters.

Honoring the past, embracing the future of human spaceflight and celebrating the spirit of human determination; this is the new theme planned by the Visitor Complex at Kennedy so that guests of all ages will feel like they are embarking on an interactive space expedition. See the ‘In Flight’ graphic illustration above.

Some 21 science centers and museums across the US are bidding for the once in a lifetime chance to house NASA’s surviving shuttle orbiters; Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour.

“The Kennedy Space Center is the home of the Space Shuttle unlike all the other places,” said Bill Moore, Chief Operating Officer of KSCVC. I spoke to Moore at KSC in an exclusive interview for Universe Today.

“All of the shuttle missions have launched from here, not anywhere else. So Kennedy is their home. And they all eventually come back here at the end of each mission. So we have a compelling story to tell about their history at KSC and the future.”

Shuttle Endeavour and the White Room
Shuttle orbiter display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex will include many shuttle artifacts, including the White Room - shown here attached to shuttle Endeavour. Astronauts walk
through the white room to enter the shuttle crew cabin. Credit: Ken Kremer

The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D.C., has long been expected to be picked as the retirement home for Space Shuttle Discovery, the oldest orbiter. That leaves Atlantis and Endeavour remaining in the bidding war. Since the Smithsonian currently displays the shuttle Enterprise, that unflown orbiter would also be up for grabs by another venue.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will decide the final site selections. He is scheduled to announce the winner of the nationwide competition on April 12, which is the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle flight (STS-1) by Columbia on April, 12, 1981.

Another location that plays a pivoital role in the U.S. space program is NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, home to Mission Control. Johnson Space Center is also home base for the shuttle astronauts and houses the facilities where they train for space missions. The Johnson Visitor Center – Space Center Houston – has proposed a 53,000 square foot pavilion with interactive exhibits.

The proposed new 53,000-square-foot space shuttle exhibit located at the Visitor Center at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston will be an interactive, educational experience that encourages student interest and commitment to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. NASA’s Johnson Space Center plays a vital role in the US Space program. Johnson is home to Mission Control, the shuttle astronauts and the astronauts training base. Credit: Space Center Houston

Many of those who work on space projects feel strongly that two of the orbiters should unquestionably be awarded to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and the Johnson Space Center JSC) since these are the two locations most intimately involved with the Space Shuttle program. All the crews were trained at JSC and blasted off to space from KSC.

Among the other contenders in the running to house an orbiter are; the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York City; the Adler Planetarium in Chicago; the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio; the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama; the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

The Adler envisions a dynamic exhibition of the Space Shuttle Orbiter in which visitors will have an opportunity to get up close to this national treasure. Proposed exhibition elements including a simulator will help families experience space exploration first-hand. Credit: Adler Planetarium

At the Kennedy Visitor Complex, a brand new 64,000 square-foot hall would be constructed to display the orbiter “In Flight”. The exhibit would engage viewers in an up close experience to see how the vehicle actually worked in space and also feature its major accomplishments; such as building the International Space Station (ISS) and upgrading the Hubble Space Telescope.

The orbiter home is projected to cost some $100 million and would be the marquee element of the master plan entailing a transformative overhaul of the entire visitor complex at Kennedy, according to Moore.

The KSCVC concept is outlined in a thick book with extensively detailed story boards and drawings. Clearly, a lot of hard work and thought has gone into designing KSCVC’s proposal to house an orbiter and integrate it with a complete renovation and update of the spaceport tour facilities. The goal is to satisfy the interests of the whole family- not just hard core space geeks.

“We (KSCVC) will display the orbiter tilted, like it is flying in space and at work. Because that’s the way people think about the orbiter – working in space. Not sitting on the ground on three wheels,” Moore explained to me.

“So, our job at KSC is to show the shuttle’s working time as it is flying in space. The payload bay doors will be open and the robotic arm will be extended. Some type of cargo will be inside. We will also show the Hubble and the ISS with models, giant video screens and murals, because we think that’s key to understanding the role of the shuttle.”

Tilted Endeavour 'In Flight'
This tilted view of Space Shuttle Endeavour ‘In Flight’ may give an impression of what visitors might experience in the shuttle orbiter exhibit planned by the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex if they are selected as a permanent home for the retired vehicle. I snapped this photo inside the Vehicle Assembly Building while Endeavour was vertically tilted and being hoisted by cables in mid-air. The photo has been rotated 90 degrees to look as though it were horizontal. Credit: Ken Kremer

Moore told me that this will be the largest building ever constructed at KSCVC, even bigger than the popular Shuttle Launch Experience completed a few years back.

“When people come into the exhibit, their first view will be to see the orbiter as though someone would see it by looking out from the ISS, up against a gorgeous backdrop of the Earth, the Sky and the Universe.”

“The point is to make you believe that you are actually seeing the orbiter in space. Visitors will be able to view the orbiter from many different angles,” said Moore.

The shuttle will be shown as it really looks and is flown with the heat shield tiles, with all its scorch marks, pits, scars and imperfections.

“We do not want the orbiter to be polished to a pristine state,” Moore stated firmly.

“We want to expose as many people as possible from around the world to this wonderful vehicle and to what’s happened up there in space.”

“The vehicle is just part of the story. The story is much bigger.

Historic Final Landing of Space Shuttle Discovery
Space Shuttle Discovery concluded her magnificent final journey with a safe landing on March 9, 2011 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Discovery is the first shuttle to be retired and will likely be housed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Credit: Ken Kremer

“The purpose of the display building is that we want to show the whole story of what the shuttle has done and all the major milestones. The people who processed and cared for the orbiters are also part of the story,” Moore amplified.

“We will remember and show the story of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, what we learned from the accidents and then fixed lots of issues to get to a better flight system.”

I asked Moore, when will the exhibit open ? “I would like to open the exhibit by mid to late 2013,” he replied.

The orbiter will be showcased with components from the shuttle’s history. “We have the beanie cap, the white room and a fairly large collection of many other artifacts, parts and items beyond just the orbiter that will be used to tell the story of the shuttle program.”

“The shuttle story covers 30 remarkable years,” said Moore.

Only two flights remain until the shuttles are forcibly retired for lack of many and some say willpower to continue exploring.

The final flight of Endeavour on the STS-134 mission is set for April 19. Atlantis is honored with the shuttle programs very last mission, STS-135, slated for late June 2011.

Discovery just landed on her historic final mission on March 9 – a thrilling and bittersweet experience for all who work and report on the shuttle program. Discovery is being decommissioned and now belongs to history although she has a lot of life left in her.

Stay tuned for the April 12 announcement of the Orbiter homes selected.

Space Shuttle Atlantis at Pad 39 A at the Kennedy Space Center.
Atlantis will blast off on the final mission of the shuttle era in late June 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer
Space Shuttle at Intrepid. The Intrepid states it has plenty of room at Pier 86 to house a space shuttle. The shuttle would be displayed in a dedicated building with plenty of viewing platforms to give guests an up close look into one of these orbiters. Credit: Intrepid Museum
The National Museum of the United States Air Force is in the midst of a multi-phase, long-term expansion plan. The next major program initiative is a new Space Gallery which would house the orbiter in a new climate controlled Iindoor display hanger. The Air Force is most interested in Atlantis due to it being the primary Air Force/Department of Defense shuttle. Atlantis has included more than 30 Air Force astronauts among its crews. The Air Force and DoD also play critical roles in shuttle launch and recovery operations in a continuous, decades-long partnership with NASA. Credit: USAF
The proposed Shuttle Gallery at the Seattle Museum of Flight features a glass room for the Space Shuttle with a view of the stars. Credit: Seattle Museum of Flight