I went to the opening of the Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit at Kennedy Space Center this weekend. Here are a few tips to consider if you plan to visit.
Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit
If you avoided going over to Kennedy Space Center on the opening day of the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit because you were worried about the crowd, then don't worry. A crowded day at KSC is like a good day at Walt Disney World – a 15 minute wait. I went through the exhibit twice and never has to wait even that long. Most of the extra tours were sold out, but you could easily get into the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit without waiting in a long lone.
There is a full-sized replica of the external fuel tank and rocket boosters at the entrance to the new facility. In fact, you can see them from miles away as you drive toward the KSC Visitor Center entrance. Walking under them as you enter the exhibit building gives you a sense of scale for the real shuttle that most of us never got to see up close.
Once inside, you work your way up the ramp to enter a theater for the first of two movie presentations. Here's your first tip, so pay attention.
The only seating is along the back wall. Everyone else stands or sits on the floor. If you want a seat, the be one of the first in your group to enter the theater. Just keep in mind that you won't have a good view of the screen. Despite being mounted high up on the opposite wall, the people who didn't get a seat will just stand in front of you and block your view.
The first video is a short and cheesy history of the development of the Space Shuttle program. I say cheesy because my own experience working in the aerospace industry included a lot of profanity that isn't apparent in this video. The management in charge of aerospace engineers know how to cuss so much that sailors will blush. That didn't make the cut.
Space Shuttle Atlantis in Space
I shot the video above in the second chamber after you leave the first theater. It's a crappy iPhone video, but it gives you a sense of the presentation showing Atlantis from launch, deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, docking with the International Space Station and returning home. Actually, I wanted to go back and shoot a higher quality video on my tripod with a better system, but I was approached by a worker who told me I couldn't shoot that video. I'm not sure if that's supposed to be the case or not. They notify you not to use video lighting, but there's no sign or warning about shooting video itself – at least that I saw.
When you go into the second chamber, there are a few things to consider. Here's your second tip.
The chamber is huge and the video shows on a half-dome that surrounds you. My video above doesn't do it justice and only captures about half of the experience. If you really want to soak in all of the video experience, stand near the back so you can see everything. Once it's over, the wall opens up and then you get out to see Atlantis. It's tempting to be one of the first in your group to rush up to it, but don't worry. The crowd will ebb and flow. You have plenty of time to let the first folks run out and get their snapshots. Then they move and you can get your own experience before the next crowd comes out of the theater.
Other Exhibits and Experiences
There is much more to the Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit than Atlantis. You'll also find a full sized replica of the Hubble Space Telescope, numerous interactive stations with the history of the Atlantis orbiter, hands-on systems to pilot the ship or even use a space toilet. Small kids were having a blast, so don't think this is just something for adults.
You get within spitting distance of Atlantis (don't spit), which is much closer than any other Space Shuttle exhibit I've seen so far. If you're into photography, take a tripod. The exhibit is definitely a low-light environment. Yes, you can use a flash if you want your photos to look like a typical tourist snapshot. They also have a couple of photographers on hand to take your photo in front of Atlantis, if you like.
A bevy of astronauts were on hand, signing autographs and the crowd truly enjoyed their presence. Although Atlantis is the star attraction of the exhibit, it's good to remember that the real purpose was to safely carry these men and women on their missions in space. That's one of the best reasons to visit the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit – not just because of the technology, but because of the people who made our history using technology.
There was a brief glitch in the presentation on my second time through, but I tend to expect some minor adjustments of any opening attraction. It certainly wasn't something that took away from the experience.
The Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit is part of the standard admission to Kennedy Space Center. It's definitely worth the drive to check out this part of our history.