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New shuttle Atlantis exhibit gives close-up look at space flight

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - In deciding how to exhibit the space shuttle Atlantis, which goes on display next week, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida opted for a perspective that would allow the public a rare view.

"One of the ideas that developed very early was to show the orbiter as only astronauts had seen it - in space," said Bill Moore, chief operating officer with Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts, which operates the visitors center for NASA at Cape Canaveral.

The developers of the exhibit raised the 150,000-pound (68,000-kg) spaceship 30 feet into the air and tilted it 43 degrees over on its left side, simulating the vehicle in flight.

The shuttle's 60-foot-long cargo bay doors were also opened, a gutsy move since the 2.5-ton panels were designed for the weightless environment of space, and a mock-up robotic arm was added - the real one could not support its weight in Earth's gravity.

Then a viewing ramp was built to bring visitors almost within arm's reach of the ship that flew NASA's 135th and final shuttle mission in 2011, closing a 30-year chapter in U.S. space history.

"About half our country now is past the age of being around when we walked on the moon," Moore said. "We want to keep a balance between telling the history of how we got here and inspiring people for what the future of space is all about."

The shuttle is accompanied by a high-fidelity mockup of the Hubble Space Telescope. The real telescope's 1990 launch, its repair three years later and four life-extending servicing missions comprise one of the shuttle program's success stories.

Positioned throughout the 90,000-square-foot (8,361-square-meter) building housing Atlantis are interactive exhibits, shuttle hardware, films and other displays that include darker tales, including the shuttle's tortured 12-year development program and the two ships lost in accidents that claimed 14 lives.

"You have to talk about all five shuttles, you can't talk about just three," Moore said. "We don't hide behind those facts. We don't not talk about them."

Before arriving at the Atlantis exhibit, visitors are routed beneath an eye-popping, full-size replica shuttle external fuel tank and twin rocket boosters. The stack stretches 184 feet into the sky.

SISTER SHIPS

Atlantis followed sister ships Discovery and Endeavour into retirement. They, along with the prototype Enterprise, which was used for atmospheric testing before the shuttle's 1981 debut, now draw huge crowds to their respective museums.

Discovery is at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.; Endeavour is at the California Science Center in Los Angeles; and Enterprise is at the Intrepid Sea-Air Space Museum in New York.

All 135 shuttle missions were launched from the Kennedy Space Center, which also housed and prepared the ships and their cargo for flight.

The new $100-million Atlantis facility is focused on three main themes. The first is about the engineering and operation of the shuttle, a machine comprising more than 2.5 million hand-made parts.

The second is about the thousands of people who worked on the program over more than 30 years, while the last has to do with the future, perhaps the most challenging part of the exhibit.

NASA is working on a new capsule and rocket to carry astronauts to destinations beyond the International Space Station, a permanently staffed, $100-billion research outpost that flies about 250 miles in space.

The station was pieced together by U.S. space shuttle crews over more than a decade.

But where that rocket and capsule will go and when it will arrive is an ongoing debate. Meanwhile, NASA is hoping to buy rides for its space station crews from private industry by 2017.

The exhibit opens June 29. Ticket prices are $50 for adults and $40 for children aged 3-11, plus tax.

(Editing by David Adams and Paul Simao)

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