Atlantis’ team comforted by the orbiter retiring at her home port of KSC

by Philip Sloss

A few days after the high-visibility move of Space Shuttle Orbiter Endeavour to her retirement home, a quieter move marked the end of an era October 17th at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) when NASA and United Space Alliance (USA) workers rolled Orbiter Atlantis out of Bay 2 of the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) for the final time, en route to High Bay 4 of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

Atlantis Leaves Her OPF One Last Time:

Riding on top of the Orbiter Transporter System (OTS), Atlantis looked at a distance like she was getting ready for another launch; however, the Shuttle integration cells in the VAB are now being dismantled, much as the veteran spaceship’s systems were decommissioned over the past fifteen months.

Atlantis’ move also marks the completion of major Transition and Retirement (T&R) processing and the vehicle is now ready for her move down the road to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center on November 2.

A large crowd of KSC employees and their families gathered outside the VAB as Atlantis became the last orbiter to be backed out of OPF-2 after a passing rainshower moved through the area.

The OTS was parked on the tow-way in front of OPF Bay 3 for a few hours as a part of an employee event to give time for the gathered employees to walk around the orbiter, take pictures, and eat ice-cream provided for the event.

“It was a little bit somber this morning during the pre-test briefing – some folks got to give their thanks to the team and talk about what a great ship Atlantis was and is and all the great things the team did to make that happen,” Stephanie Stilson, NASA Flow Director for Orbiter Transition and Retirement, said in a media question and answer session.

“For us I think the saving grace is that we know she’s close by, so although we’re giving her away from the LC-39 Complex Area, she’s just going to be right down the road.

“I think that’s making it easier for everyone to accept.”

The roll to the VAB was one of the last in a long series for Atlantis this year, as all around the spaceship facilities have been decommissioned and retired and her sisterships have said goodbye to the Space Center.

Atlantis flew the last Space Shuttle flight, STS-135, in July of last year, returning to the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at Kennedy before sunrise on July 21. A few hours later, the orbiter was towed from the runway to OPF-2 to begin T&R processing.

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As it turned out, the vehicle stayed in OPF-2 longer than originally planned, with the vehicle being powered down for the final time on December 22. Then, in what would be familiar scene this year, Atlantis was towed into the VAB for temporary storage, first into the Transfer Aisle on January 20, then around to VAB High Bay 4 on Groundhog Day.

While in the VAB in February, work got started to remove most of the Main Propulsion System (MPS) plumbing out of Atlantis’ aft compartment – to be preserved for possible use on the Space Launch System in development by NASA.

On March 9th, Atlantis traded places with soon-departing sistership Discovery, moving into OPF-1, where the balance of the MPS component removal work was completed over the next three months. Then on June 29, Atlantis retired OPF-1 from orbiter processing when she was towed back to VAB High Bay 4, becoming the last Shuttle orbiter in OPF-1.

Next, on August 16, Atlantis said goodbye to her other departing sistership Endeavour, trading places and moving into OPF-2 one final time.

In the last few months in OPF-2, work to configure Atlantis for museum display was completed. The vehicle’s payload bay doors were opened and a mockup external airlock and Orbiter Docking System (ODS) were installed, along with simulated payload bay cameras.

The aft compartment exterior was closed out, with the remaining closeouts around the Replica Shuttle Main Engines being completed and nozzles being attached to the hollowed-out Orbiter Maneuvering System (OMS) pods. The External Tank doors were also removed in September; in an earlier Q&A session, Stilson explained that the way the Visitor Complex plans to display Atlantis meant the doors had to be removed:

“They wanted those to come off because…they’re mounting (Atlantis) through those connection points and so the doors were going to be in the way. If you think about it, they’re trying to convey (the orbiter) being on-orbit – well, the doors would be closed if it was on-orbit, so we took off the actual flight doors (and) they will build some kind of mockup door around the connection point to make it look closed.”

In the last few days, measurements of the orbiter’s weight and CG were taken, Atlantis was placed on top of the OTS, and her landing gear was retracted for the final time. Stilson said that Atlantis tipped the scales at just under 153,000 pounds prior to the roll. In comparison, the last few orbiters that rolled from the OPF to the VAB for stacking and flight weighed in at around 195,000 pounds.

Now, just as her departed sisters did earlier in the year, Atlantis will spend a few weeks time waiting in the VAB for her museum ride.

Atlantis’ move closes the books on Kennedy Space Center Shuttle orbiter processing, which began with the delivery of Orbiter Columbia by piggyback ferry flight on 24 March 1979. The next day, Columbia was towed from the SLF to OPF Bay 1.

Retired from orbiter processing with Atlantis’ move, OPF Bay 2 was first used with the delivery of Orbiter Challenger to KSC in July, 1982. Now that it stands empty, NASA and USA will begin decommissioning work on OPF-2 that couldn’t be done while it was occupied.

While the move officially ended the Shuttle Program’s work on the vehicle (Stilson said there was about a week’s worth of paper closeouts still to complete), it was just the penultimate one for Atlantis; in a little over two weeks, the OTS will take the retired spaceship on a long, circuitous path around KSC to get to the Visitor Complex.

Just outside the OPF area, the OTS will turning south on Kennedy Parkway, carrying Atlantis down towards the KSC Industrial Area and turning east on NASA Parkway.

The transporter will turn into the Industrial Area and eventually make it down to the southern part of the area, where it will turn back west and go across Kennedy Parkway into the parking lot at Exploration Park, where the transporter will stop for a few hours to display Atlantis for local dignitaries, invited guests, and media.

Finally, the Atlantis will be moved out onto Space Commerce Way, heading around to NASA Parkway for a turn back to the east and the Visitor Complex, circumnavigating a security gate.

To read about the orbiters –  from birth, processing, every single mission, through to retirement, click here for the links:

(Images: Via L2, L2 Historical, Philip Sloss/ and Larry Sullivan MaxQ Entertainment/

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