Atlantis rollover
Rollover of Atlantis from the VAB to the Visitor Complex in 2012
Living on the Space Coast, there is no escaping the weight of history around you, especially the image of the Space Shuttle, America’s last manned space program. In our home is a model of Discovery, a reminder to John of his 33 years as a career space worker. Local restaurants are decorated with photos of launches and astronauts. When the sheriff’s car goes past, the logo includes a Space Shuttle. In our part of Florida, you’re constantly faced with reminders of how deeply everyone’s lives are intertwined with space.

There is no mistaking the shape and size of the solid rocket boosters that lifted each orbiter and bright orange fuel tank off the Space Shuttle launch pads. As I walked through the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, a replica of these towering icons beckoned the way to Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Space shuttle boosters
Replica boosters from Space Shuttle Atlantis. They can be seen from miles away.

Pausing at the door to read the dedication plaque, I choked up as I walked up the ramps to join the rest of the group. Each step revealed another quote, another scene, another ordinary person who’d dedicated their life to this program.

A Program Like No Other

Thirty years. Six spacecraft. 135 missions. Unlike the manned programs that laid its foundation, the Space Shuttle program had a different vision, one of facilitating everyday work in space. In 1969, Dr. Max Faget shared his dream – and prototype – of a reusable spacecraft that would “launch like a rocket, land like an airplane, and be reusable.” It took the next 12 years to refine designs, create and test components, and test the first orbiter – Enterprise, named for the starship in Star Trek – to ensure that landing on a landing strip would be feasible.

STS-1 crew
John (third from left, front row) and the rest of his crew from STS-1

John hired on as a mechanic working with Enterprise, and served on the landing crews for the first nine missions, watching Columbia blast into space on April 12, 1981 as the first live test mission of the program. He worked on all of the orbiters at different points in different jobs throughout his career.

Day launch shuttle
Shuttle launch at Kennedy Space Center, 2009 (John Keatley)
As you enter Space Shuttle Atlantis, two theater performances convey the story, from conception to first launch, with the final moments immersing you in what it felt like to be present in the program – watching a launch, working with the orbiter, flying through space with the astronauts, and experiencing that sonic boom that we Floridians grew accustomed to hearing. When the curtain opens on Atlantis, you’re nose-to-nose with history, in a state of awe.

Atlantis, the Spacecraft

Atlantis flew 33 missions, from STS-51J in October 1985 to STS-135 in July 2011, the final mission of the program. Her maiden voyage was to deploy a classified military payload, and yes, you could fit a school bus inside that payload bay. She docked with the Russian space station Mir on seven missions, and carried critical pieces of the International Space Station into orbit for assembly. After 26 years and more than 126 million miles of service, she shows dings and burn marks from re-entry across her tiles.

Shuttle Atlantis
Orbiter OV-104, the shuttle Atlantis

Suspended as if in orbit at a 43.21° angle, with a video wall of space scenes behind her and her payload doors open, Atlantis dominates all levels of the six-story, 90,000 square foot building. Each gallery focuses on a different aspect of the Space Shuttle program while providing a different perspective on Atlantis, from above, from both ends, and from below. At several vantage points, you’re close enough to read the serial numbers off the tiles.

Space Shuttle Atlantis
You’re close enough to inspect the surface of the Space Shuttle

A short flight of stairs up and you’re in the On Orbit Gallery, where a bank of interactive computer screens stands at the ready to reveal her inner workings. Use Inside Atlantis to scan across the orbiter and discover the systems inside. The Atlantis 360° touchscreens let you zoom into a particular part of the flight deck and discover the functions and acronyms for thousands of components. I spent the most time with the STS Timeline, digging into mission histories complete with historic footage and photographs of crew members.

Space Shuttle engine
A Space Shuttle engine on exhibit

Following the flow of exhibits to the lower levels takes you through the descent of the spacecraft from orbit through re-entry and landing. Each twist and turn reveals something new. Reaching ground level, you discover the heart of the process – reusability – and the many steps it took to process each orbiter from landing to the next launch.

Space Shuttle teamwork
The exhibit acknowledges the teamwork necessary to launch a Space Shuttle

Beyond its 167 exhibits and thousands of artifacts telling the many stories of the Space Shuttle program, Space Shuttle Atlantis includes hands-on activities ranging from a virtual reality space walk and astronaut training simulators to a crawl-through model of the International Space Station (hanging 26 feet above the next level) and a pair of Re-Entry Slides at the steep 22° angle of descent the shuttles used when landing.

Shuttle landing simulator
The Space Shuttle landing simulators are especially popular

One large gallery is dedicated to everyday life on the International Space Station, with an interactive media wall updating you on what’s new up there. A preexisting attraction, the Shuttle Launch Experience, is accessed through the ground floor level of this building.

We Dream of Space

Fascinated by stories of space flight in My Weekly Reader in elementary school, I read everything I could on space, from “Space Cat goes to Venus” as a young reader to the works of Ray Bradberry and Robert Heinlein in my teenage years. Listening to Walter Cronkite share the latest in space on the evening news and watching Neil Armstrong take those very first steps on the moon, I was part of that first generation immersed in national pride. I dreamed of being an astronaut, and cheered while watching the launch of STS-7 in 1983, when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.

Before he squeezed inside a Space Shuttle for the first time, John grew up in those “I Dream of Jeanne” days with his dad working at Kennedy Space Center. For thousands, it was, as Elton John sang, “just my job five days a week.” Seven days a week was more common, and the pride and perfection put into the job wasn’t always rewarded.

Shuttle Atlantis team
John (second from left, front row) and the rest of one of his Atlantis teams
During the Space Shuttle Program, most who worked on the orbiters were contractors. Throughout the exhibits, more than 80 people – from wrench-turning mechanics to number-crunchers to engineers and technicians – tell their stories of life on the job through video clips, photographs, and quotations. While kids will still dream of being astronauts, they’ll find out there is a lot more to space exploration, learning it takes a big team – and many steps – to launch a spacecraft.

Oh, and that STS-7 launch I watched? John was there for the landing, at the backup runway at Edwards Air Force Base, California. He was on the emergency crew stationed in case of a mission abort for landing at Kennedy Space Center, and that’s exactly what happened. As the hands-on mechanic of the team, he was the one who opened the Space Shuttle door – the astronauts could not do so from inside – and said “Welcome back to earth, guys!”

End of an Era

In November 2012, John and his parents and I watched Atlantis roll through Kennedy Space Center, leaving the Orbiter Processing Facility for the last time. She became the focal point for telling the story of the program, with a $100 million dollar LEED-certified building completed around her.

While Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center is a self-supporting tourist attraction, it’s also an outreach arm for NASA, an educational facility that tells the story of the United States in space. With the opening of Space Shuttle Atlantis, the story of the Space Shuttle program now has a place of honor.

“It will capture the imagination of another generation,” said Bob Cabana, the Director of Kennedy Space Center. “It was a phenomenal spaceship…and now it’s going to lead a mission of inspiration to future scientists and engineers and explorers.”

Human spaceflight ended from United States soil when the Space Shuttle program shuttered, with a reverberating impact on the region we live in. Kennedy Space Center has always been the outpost of hands-on, blue-collar space jobs. More than 7,000 workers suddenly found themselves without employment, crippling the local economy.

NASA now pays Russia more than $70 million per seat for U.S. astronauts to fly to the International Space Station. By comparison, it cost $450 million per mission to put six or seven astronauts into orbit in a Space Shuttle.

The Next Generation

After a lull, there is now a bustle of activity again at Kennedy Space Center as Space X ramps up their plans for launching humans back into space from the Space Coast, and Blue Origin begins developing the new Glenn rockets. The recent test launch of the Falcon Heavy, sending Space X founder Elon Musk’s Telsa into space with “Starman” at the wheel, captured the imagination of many. Visitors are once again showing up along our shores to watch rocket launches, enough so that we have to plan our travels around them or get trapped in our neighborhood.

Orion capsule
Orion capsule on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Visit Kennedy Space Center

To get a handle on what’s next in space, visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Titusville, an hour east of Orlando. Space Shuttle Atlantis remains the most compelling, to us, of more than a dozen attractions and tours on site, with the Saturn V complex a don’t-miss as well.

Open 9-5 daily, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex general admission costs $50 ages 12+, $40 ages 3-11, with discounts for active military and ages 55+. Budget for a parking fee of $10 or more per day. For local residents or frequent visitors, annual passes are your best value, as they cost less than two visits. Additional fees apply for special events like rocket launch viewing and “Lunch with an Astronaut” programs.

As the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is on Federal property, your car and anything you are carrying with you may be inspected upon arrival at the gate and at the complex. Certain items may not be carried onto Kennedy Space Center, particularly firearms and ammunition; a full list of contraband is posted on their website.