Atlantis begins vacation inside the VAB as she prepares for exhibition

by Chris Bergin

Atlantis departed her Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-2) on Friday, ahead of arriving inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Looking rather sorry for herself – with all her propulsive hardware elements removed – Atlantis can at least look forward to staying on the Space Coast, as her impressive retirement home began ground-breaking this week.

Heartbreak And Honor:

It was only last summer when Atlantis was busy in space, doing what she does best, on a mission that was being conducted by an orbiter which hadn’t even reached the half way point of her service life.

Rather than looking forward to her next mission, Atlantis had to endure numerous speeches – and on occasion the crocodile tears of those who pushed for the program’s end – citing the “bright” future for NASA, despite her successful landing being marked more noticeably by the thousands of pink slips that were handed out to the workforce that helped enable her safe return.

Atlantis’ mission even missed out on the regular report card of the In Flight Anomaly (IFA) review (L2 Link to all IFA presentations from recent missions) – a key component for a follow-on, as NASA opted to ensure a line was drawn under the Space Shuttle Program (SSP), visibly seen on at least two occasions by the sight of shuttle documentation literally being thrown into trash bins near the Launch Control Center (LCC).

At the same time, a team was working towards a reprieve for Atlantis and her younger sister Endeavour, as efforts were made to take control of the orbiter’s fate via a privately funded deal – as reported by this site – before that effort failed due to the amount of “re-purposing” work that had already taken place for the Space Launch System (SLS).

One former United Space Alliance (USA) engineer sarcastically noted that if some NASA leaders put the same amount of effort into advancing SLS’ progress, as they did to kill the Space Shuttle Program, “we’ll be on Mars before you know it.”

To most people, the retirement of the Shuttle was sealed via the loss of the flagship Columbia during STS-107. It is also claimed that any real viable reversal of the retirement decision – made during the now-defunct Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) – required full political and agency level support around three years before STS-135, due to the phased shutdown of critical contractor bases.

Thankfully, the main enduring memory will be how the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) covered itself in glory since Return To Flight, not only successfully completing the final role for the fleet – as seen via the completion of the giant space station which continues to fly over our heads – but also via a run of amazingly flawless missions, conducted by what was a hugely complex – and indeed risky – spaceship by design.

Taming the orbiters for their swansong missions – and returning each ship and their crews home safe – not only honored Columbia and her fallen crew, but also provided a wealth of experience and knowledge, all of which is being handed down to the follow on programs, both NASA and commercial, with a priority on crew safety.

Soon the public will be able to honor the three remaining orbiters in person, with Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis all moving through their Transition and Retirement (T&R) operations.

Discovery has made the most progress, as was expected, now sporting the Replica Shuttle Main Engines (RSMEs) – given all flight SSMEs have since transitioned to the SLS program – while the tailcone has been installed around her aft, a required piece of hardware to allow for her final journey to Dulles Airport on top of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA).

She will be rolled to the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) where she will be mated on top of the SCA in the coming months, with a final flight transiting her to the retirement destination of the world famous Smithsonian. She will also spend a short period greeting Enterprise on the runway, ahead of her trip to New York City.

Atlantis is yet to receive her RSMEs, and with missing Orbital Manuevering Pods (OMS) and Forward and Aft Reaction Control System (RCS) hardware, she did look less glamorous than usual during her roll to the VAB , where – upon arrival – she was greeted by Endeavour taking a peek at her older sister through a gap in the Transfer Aisle.

However, she wouldn’t of been aware of her shoddy appearance, following her final powerdown in late December of last year. The powerdown marked the end of her 26 year service to the United States and the world.

With Endeavour set to fly to the West Coast for her retirement, Atlantis at least gets to stay at her home port, taking center stage at a new facility which began ground breaking this week.

The retirement home will be hosted at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, with construction starting on a new 65,000-square-foot exhibit at the complex’s Space Shuttle Plaza.

“It is an honor to create the home for space shuttle Atlantis and to work with NASA to tell its story to the world,” said Jeremy Jacobs, chairman and chief executive officer of Delaware North Companies, which operates the visitor complex for NASA.

STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson was at the ground breaking, again showing his loyalty to the orbiter he brought home safe last year. The commander believes the public access to his ship will inspire future generations to step in his footsteps as an astronaut.

“It’s very fortunate we can celebrate this milestone, fortunate we had the foresight and the resources to preserve Atlantis to serve as a reminder of the limitless potential of the citizens of the United States of America, and inspire those who will come after us,” said Commander Ferguson.

“This coming Saturday does mark six months since the final landing of Atlantis out here, about three miles behind me,” said Ferguson.

“With that final landing, the shuttle program came to a conclusion after 30 years of discovery and exploration. At times we had to lick our wounds, at times there were joyous moments, but by the grace of God we concluded the program just the way we wanted to, very safely.”

However, the most apt words – at least from Atlantis’ standpoint – came from Janet Petro, deputy director of Kennedy Space Center, mirroring the affection shown towards the orbiters from the teams which often noted how the vehicles were like family members.

“For 30 years, the orbiters have been a part of our family. We’ve cared for them, we’ve protected them, and we’ve watched them soar. We’ve marveled at the similarities between them, and the differences that only ‘family’ could identify.

“Atlantis’ new home is beautifully designed to showcase her as the true engineering marvel that she is.”

To read about Atlantis from birth through to retirement, click here for the links:

Please note: Clickable links with (L2) references point directly to cited L2 content. Such content is only available to L2 members (please ensure you are logged in). All other clickable links point to NSF articles and open content.

(Images: Via NASA and L2 content.)

(L2 and NSF are continuing to follow the orbiters through their transitional period. To join L2, click here:

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