The Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit (spoiler free) - Orlando / Florida Guide
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The Atlantis exhibit at the Kennedy Space Centre opened in July 2013 and I was lucky enough to pay a visit a couple of weeks after it opened.
Before seeing it in person, I had read lots on the internet about the engineering required to build this magnificent display. The shell of the building was put up and then the orbiter (the name given to the bit of the shuttle that looks like a plane) was moved into position inside it, beside the existing Shuttle Launch Simulator (more about this later). The orbiter was hoisted into position at an impossible viewing angle and then the rest of the building was built around it. The folks at Kennedy Space Centre were even thoughtful enough to provide a daily feed of its progress. During the building work, Atlantis was kept wrapped up to avoid damage during construction and only added to the appeal for those of us watching keenly. It was a real feat to get it built, but then what else would we expect from the people that took us to the moon? !
It’s difficult not to notice the building when you first visit the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex, as there is a huge mockup of the SRBs (solid rocket boosters) outside. These carried the fuel that carried Atlantis into orbit. I like how the mockup outside doesn’t include the orbiter, as if the boosters got somehow disconnected from and now await its return before blasting into space for another journey. That is one of the highlights of the attraction – the Kennedy Space Centre seems to have taken a leaf out of the Disney book of Imagineering and drawn upon the Shuttle’s rich history to weave a powerful storyline for the Atlantis exhibit.
Upon entering the building, you are guided through a maze of highly themed walkways showcasing some of Atlantis’ details, achievements and history. The idea is that you are the orbiter coming in to land. The place looks wonderfully modern with cool lighting and brushed stainless steel everywhere.
I had assumed these walkways would lead directly to the room housing the orbiter but, instead, they lead to a holding centre, with a large screen on one end. Continuing the story theme, a short movie plays giving you an insight into the history of the Shuttle Programme and the design of the orbiter. It’s really well produced and it’s difficult not to get taken in by it, although I do wish there were seats, rather than being expected to stand or sit on the floor.
Next, you’re taken into another room in which you are shown the contribution Atlantis has made to the Space Programme and shown a few glimpses of its power, ferocity and grace. If the intention of this movie is to raise your heartbeat… Boy, it works!
I won’t ruin anything for you but shortly after this, with your pulse and your adrenaline level sufficiently raised, you finally get to see Atlantis and, my goodness, she’s breath-taking. The angle of the display is dynamic and the numerous levels and viewing positions allow you to see all around. The engineers have done brilliantly to allow guests so close to this icon but managed to put her just out of the reach of wayward hands. This is no bad thing, as I had to fight myself not to reach out and touch her.
Along with the obvious main attraction, there are a number of simluators and smaller displays giving you an insight into the finer details of space flight, including the Canadia robotic arm and even an (always busy! ) exhibit about going to the toilet in space.
At the end of the room, you can enter the Shuttle Launch Experience, which is said to be the closest approximation of a shuttle launch outside actually riding in one. Of course, not being a shuttle astronaut, I have no basis of comparison but it felt very real to me. Be aware the shaking is pretty violent, so if you’re sensitive to it, you may prefer to spend your time using the array of simulators outside while the rest of your party rides. To stop the contents of your pockets being shaken into oblivion, there are free lockers for you to use while you’re riding.
Once you’ve done the Shuttle Launch Experience (sometimes, if you smile nicely, the crew will allow you to ride twice or more), you return to the simulator area to collect your belongings and tamer family members and, after a trip through the gift shop, you’re ready to go straight back into the entrance and do it all over again. I should also point out that not everything in this gift shop is available in the big Space Shop in the main Visitor Complex, so if you see something you really like, pick it up here.
It’s well worth the trip to Kennedy Space Centre just to see this exhibit and you won’t regret the hour drive. So my advice is to come and see Atlantis, meet a legend.
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