Kennedy Space Center said goodbye to their final departing space shuttle orbiter on Friday, though Atlantis only had to travel 9.8 miles (15.8 km) to her new home just off-site in the process.
“It’s bittersweet seeing her go,” said one NASA employee, “but at least she’ll be nearby.”
The same can’t be said for the other two orbiters, Discovery already on display outside of Washington, DC, and Endeavour recently arrived in LA. This is the first time that Kennedy Space Center (KSC) has been without an orbiter since 1979.
Endeavour’s exhibition at the California Science Center opened last week after her multi-day transport through the streets of LA drew hundreds of thousands of viewers. Atlantis’ 11-hour trip wasn’t nearly as chaotic or nerve-racking. There were no buildings or trees to avoid, no residential neighborhoods to traverse or power lines to duck under. Most of Atlantis’ movements were made on spacious, straight roads within KSC’s boundaries. Some stretches of the transport may have had more alligator witnesses than humans.
The trip was so comparatively easy that Atlantis could afford to take the scenic route atop the 76-wheeled Orbiter Transport System to her new home at the KSC Visitor Complex. Though the maximum speed was reported to be only two miles per hour, drivers of the OTS often maintained at least twice that speed and stayed ahead of schedule throughout the day.
There were several stops en route to celebrate Atlantis and the NASA crew that kept her flying on 33 missions from 1985 to 2011. In that time, Atlantis orbited Earth 4,848 times, traveling 126 million miles (203 million km) in the process. 9.8 miles (15.8 km) of paved roads were safe and quick in comparison.
Outside of KSC Headquarters, NASA Administer Charlie Bolden and KSC Director Robert Cabana signed Atlantis over to the Visitor Complex, though NASA will retain ownership of the orbiter. Atlantis’ first and last Commanders were also on hand, Karol Bobko and Chris Ferguson respectively. All four of these former astronauts shared stories from the retired Space Shuttle Program, all but Cabana having even flown on Atlantis.
While speaking on Friday in front of a relic shuttle now limited to Earth-bound missions, presenters also focused many of their words towards the future of NASA, Kennedy Space Center, and US manned space flight in general. With no immediate replacement for the Space Shuttle Program, NASA is developing the Space Launch System while Boeing, SpaceX, and other private enterprise expand their own rocket and capsule capabilities. All of these programs are still years away from launching humans again from US soil, years that will require NASA funding to survive an era of slashed budgets and programs. Bolden mentioned taxes and budgets in his speeches almost as often as Atlantis, several times thanking the American taxpayer directly for funding these programs past and present. Many people, especially those on the Space Coast of Florida, perceive the end of the Space Shuttle Program and cancellation of the Constellation Program as potentially fatal setbacks to the US space program.
Commander Chris Ferguson, currently working for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, articulated this predicament best: “Many opportunities are in the works, things are happening, but the next few years will have to take care of themselves.”
Atlantis was the last orbiter to launch to space and is now the final one to move to her new retirement home. While everyone I talked to at KSC voiced gratitude that she’ll at least be displayed nearby and easy to visit, they all also mentioned that they’d rather see Atlantis standing at the launch pad poised for another glorious round-trip to space and back.