Kennedy Space Center: The Space Shuttle Atlantis




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This is the second of two parts on the Kennedy Space Center. Part 1 looked at the bus tour which takes you to the Apollo-Saturn V Center. Today we continue with a tour of the Visitor Complex.

The handy map of the Visitor Complex at the Kennedy Space Center notes some twenty attractions and lists some as must-see. These include an IMAX Theatre with several shows available, an Astronaut Encounters theatre where you can actually meet a real astronaut, an early space exploration museum, the impressive rocket plaza which feature eight different rockets on display, all but one standing on end as they would have been during launch, and the piece de resistance – the fabulous Space Shuttle Atlantis display.

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The map that comes with the visitor’s guide.

The Kennedy Space Center is still an active rocket launch site and on occasion you may be able to witness the actual launch of a rocket. Such happens to be the case tomorrow, May 26, 2016. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch at 5:40 PM EDT tomorrow. Regular visitors may be able to access viewing locations as part of their pass on a first come, first served basis. There is also premium seating at Launch Pad 39’s Observation Gantry.

The blurb on the KSC website says that “LC-39 Observation Gantry offers a premium, up-close view of the rocket on the launch pad and during lift off. You can feel the force of the launch and hear the roar of the engines from the launch pads at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This area features lawn and bleacher seating and live launch commentary. The package includes launch transportation, a light snack and souvenir t-shirt. Launch Viewing/Transportation Tickets to LC-39 Observation Gantry are available for $49 in addition to daily admission.” But at the time of writing, all tickets have been sold out.

The Rocket Plaza
The Rocket Plaza

While we enjoyed the various displays we took in, the big one, the one that is a must-must-see is the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Outside the building that houses the actual Space Shuttle Atlantis are the two large solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank that propelled the shuttles into space. Walking by them reminds you of the lines of that poem about a colossus bestriding the world. They are like two large legs.

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The giant rockets and fuel tank used for the Space Shuttle launches.
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Inside looking out at the two solid rocket boosters in front of the building.

Inside you attend a short film before going through the doors to see the shuttle itself. The Space Shuttle Atlantis flew 33 missions and was the last space shuttle launched before the Space Shuttle program was discontinued in 2011. It has been supplanted by the International Space Station program, the Orion project (which will see men land on Mars in the 2020s) and private agencies such as SpaceX which was founded by Elon Musk.

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The Space Shuttle Atlantis, an awesome sight!

Needless to say, the Space Shuttle Atlantis is enormous. There is a large viewing platform to experience the shuttle from different vantage points. From directly in front, you see the open cargo bay as well as its two Canadarms, the two robotic arms that Canada’s space agency supplied and which are used to manipulate materials in space. One of the arms is extended.

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The cargo bay with its two Canadarms.

Behind the viewing platform are various displays including a mock-up of the pilot’s seat which you can sit in.

My wife the astronaut! Janis takes the pilot seat in this cockpit mock-up.
My wife the astronaut! Janis takes the pilot seat in this cockpit mock-up.

Navigating down the stairs you find a variety of models and displays about the space shuttle and its history. And you get a good look at the underbelly of the beast with all its nicks and scorch marks from its many fiery re-entries.

The belly of the beast. Note the many nicks and scorch marks.
The belly of the beast. Note the many nicks and scorch marks.

It is on this lower level that you also get to experience another must-do experience. The Shuttle Launch Experience is a thrill ride designed by Bob Rogers and BRC Imagination Arts who have designed attractions for Disney, Universal Studios and many more clients. This one has to rank as one of the best. It simulates what it is like to be an astronaut blasting off into space.

Before going in, you have your picture taken. Then you enter the ride itself where you are seated and strapped in. A large screen in front of you shows the exterior of the space shuttle launch pad. You have the sensation of being tilted back in your seats so you are facing up as you would be in a real space shuttle. The count down begins. The tension mounts as launch approaches. Then – blast off!

The screen shows huge flares of flame bursting from the booster rockets. And I have no idea how they create this effect, but damn if you don’t actually feel G forces pulling you back into the seat. You feel the rumble and the shaking, the intense vibrations. And after the boosters and external tank have fallen away, you feel like you are floating in space. This ride has to be experienced to be believed. Simply amazing.

After leaving the ride, you find out that that picture they took of you earlier is now available – with a twist. Yep!  It’s you in full astronaut gear.

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 Janis and I in full astronaut gear. 

After the Space Shuttle Experience we wandered over to the gift shop which is extensive and worth a visit. Heading out we passed a wall with a mural of the International Space Station and flags of all the participating countries.

The International Space Station mural and flags of participant countries.
The International Space Station mural and flags of participant countries.

The sun was starting to set as we left. A very enjoyable day. And we still did not see everything. We will return some day! I have a few unused photos left but not enough for a separate page, so I’ll just close off with a few extra pics.

Sunset over the Rocket Plaza
Sunset over the Rocket Plaza
The front end of the Atlantis Space Shuttle
The front end of the Atlantis Space Shuttle
The back end of Atlantis Space Shuttle
The back end of Atlantis Space Shuttle
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The open cargo bay of the Space Shuttle with the extended Canadarm
The rockets of Atlantis
The rockets of Atlantis
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Sunset over Rocket Plaza




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