Over the last few years I have slowly but surely managed to see all of the surviving NASA Space Shuttles. The most recent one was also the most special to me: Space Shuttle Atlantis (Orbiter Vehicle OV-104). Not only is Atlantis the most impressively displayed it is also the only one I ever personally saw launch into space. What an experience that was. The air was vibrating and the ground shaking long before you ever saw the shuttle even lift off (raw power)!
Atlantis is now the major showpiece at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. The Space Shuttle is displayed as only Astronauts and Cosmonauts onboard the International Space Station would have seen her suspended in the air at a near 45 degree angle with the payload doors open and the robotic arm extended (Canadarm or the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System used for deploying payloads). The effect of the shuttle floating in space with darkened lighting and a big backdrop screen of stars is very effective.
The shuttle is accompanied with an informative movie, NASA displays and a shuttle simulator ride. Outside the main entrance there are the huge shuttle solid rocket boosters and reusable fuel tank used to launch the shuttle out of the Earths atmosphere. Altogether they make for a very impressive display!
Construction of Atlantis the fourth space rated shuttle began on March 3rd, 1980 and was completed on April 10th,1984. The shuttle was delivered to NASA at the Kennedy Space Centre on April 9th, 1985 in preparation for her first voyage into space on October 3rd, 1985 (carrying a secret Department of Defense communications satellite payload – the first of five DOD payloads in her career).
This was the first of 33 memorable space missions that included extensive scientific experiments, the first of seven docking missions with the Russian space station Mir, launching the Magellan and Galileo planetary probes (Magellan was launched May 4th, 1989 to map the surface of Venus and Galileo was launched on October 18th, 1989 to survey the planet Jupiter and its moons) and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (launched on April 5th, 1991). The observatory weighed 17 tonnes and was at the time the heaviest astrophysical payload ever flown into space. It remained in orbit until 2000 detecting an unprecedented broad range of high-energy radiation (gamma rays). In later missions Atlantis also delivered several components for the International Space Station.
I saw Atlantis launch on her second last mission on May 14th, 2010 (the shuttles only launch that year). The final mission for Atlantis was launched on August 8th, 2011 and this also marked the last launch in NASA’s Space Shuttle program. This was the end of an era of over 30 years of shuttle missions (Space Shuttle Columbia was the first to launch on April 12th, 1981).
Although the shuttles ceased space missions in 2011, NASA’s space program is far from over. In a retrospective but necessary move in the quest for deeper space exploration, NASA will return to a manned rocket program aboard the Orion spacecraft (the first un-crewed orbital test flight is planned in 2014). Missions to the moon and beyond are planned for the future.
Late in 2013 I was in Seattle and finally got to see the NASA Space Shuttle Trainer (Full Fuselage Trainer – first constructed in 1973) in its reassembled form at the Museum of Flight. That was cool too as it was the missing piece in my Space Shuttle odyssey. Please also take a look at my visits to see Space Shuttle Endeavour in California and Space Shuttle Discovery in Virginia.