Live Active Cultures: Space Shuttle Atlantis is now open

Kennedy Space Center’s new exhibit is unexpectedly emotional

I may get my geek card revoked for revealing this, but I’ve never been a NASA nut. Sure, I made the obligatory childhood pilgrimage to Cape Canaveral for my souvenir wax-mold astronaut. But despite living in Central Florida since the mid-’90s, I never managed to check “see a shuttle launch up close” off my bucket list; the closest I ever got was watching the streak of flame from my porch. So I certainly didn’t expect to find myself welling up at last Saturday’s grand opening of Space Shuttle Atlantis’ new retirement home at Kennedy Space Center.

I’ve gotten accustomed to star-studded attraction openings lately, but the debut of KSC’s new centerpiece attracted VIPs who were truly out of this world. Forty-plus former astronauts, including Apollo 12 pilot Dick Gordon and current NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, were on hand to pay tribute to Atlantis’ 33 missions. But it wasn’t the warm speeches or the ceremonial singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” that made me well up; that moment came as I experienced the exhibit’s expertly produced pre-show alongside one of the first groups of paying guests allowed inside, some of whom had been lined up since before 6 a.m.

Visitors enter the $100 million complex by passing beneath a colossal 18-story replica of the shuttle’s solid-rocket boosters and external fuel tank. Inside the sweeping, glass-fronted building, a two-part multimedia presentation gives the audience an impressionistic refresher on the shuttle’s history, starting in the late 1960s with a balsa-wood glider model and fast-forwarding through a dozen years of development via groovy historical re-enactments (who knew NASA had so many female and black engineers in the ’70s?) leading up to Columbia’s 1981 launch. Next, a second theater surrounds the viewer with multiple arching video screens (nearly as immersive as SeaWorld’s TurtleTrek dome, without the 3-D glasses) that transport viewers from the Florida wetlands surrounding Cape Canaveral’s launchpads to orbit high above the earth.

The oversized imagery and ear-shaking sound is breathtaking, but it’s what happens next that brought a lump to my throat.

With the words “Atlantis, welcome home!” the screen you’ve been watching turns translucent, revealing Atlantis herself hovering, seemingly weightless, mere yards away, framed by a vast digital backdrop of the sun rising behind Earth. As the projection wall rises and transforms into a portal, guests stumble awe-struck toward the orbiter, whose robotic arm extends dramatically overhead from the open payload bay. No matter how many times you’ve seen it on TV, it’s impossible to express how overwhelmingly enormous Atlantis is up close; even my iPhone’s panoramic mode couldn’t do it justice.

Moreover, its realness is nearly surreal, the re-entry scorch marks and space dust scars scoring Atlantis’ surface eerily similar to the special effects painted onto Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon.

Once you’ve overcome the awe of seeing a spaceship face-to-face, the facility offers three floors of edutainment, starting with full-scale clones of the Hubble telescope and shuttle cockpit and continuing with a variety of hands-on activities that both kids and adults can appreciate.

Highlights include a mock section of the International Space Station to shimmy through sans shoes, including a clear acrylic tube suspended several stories above the floor below; video game-style simulators that let you land the shuttle or manipulate robotic arms; and an interactive tutorial on taking care of business in zero-G, complete with camera-equipped commode – a view most have probably never seen before. The Shuttle Launch Experience, introduced in 2007, has also been integrated into the new exhibit; as a stand-alone attraction, the simulator underwhelmed in comparison to Epcot’s Mission: SPACE, but it now makes a fitting finale to an informative and unexpectedly emotional experience.

KSC’s Atlantis exhibit is as engaging and well-executed as anything Disney offers, but the facility as a whole (which is privately owned, not taxpayer-funded) could take some lessons on customer service from Orlando’s parks. The recently relocated entry plaza is classy (especially the JFK memorial fountain) but lacks the flair of the former’s spacemen statues, and food service is pricey and inefficient. Worse, the hyped new “Angry Birds Space” exhibit is a cheap, ugly advertisement with minimal entertainment or educational value. If KSC keeps expanding, it needs more attractions like Atlantis and fewer feathered iPads.

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