Getting to see Space Shuttle Atlantis in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on one of the last tours was by chance. I had arrived a day early for the official rollover last November, so I visited Kennedy Space Center and took the regular tour that was included in the regular admission.
Over the last several years as the Space Shuttle Program was winding down, I had the opportunity to take the tour. Each time I took the tour, it was different from the last, often missing a stop from the previous tour.
It had been close to a year since my visit for the Mars Curiosity launch and NASA Social and 15 months since Atlantis took her last flight. Sadly, the tour had been scaled back to just driveby of the VAB and a visit to the Saturn V center.
Never did I imagine that when we passed by the VAB, would the door be open and the beautiful Space Shuttle Atlantis would be visible. I was so surprised that I didn’t have time to close my mouth as I continuously snapped pictures hoping to get one that wasn’t blurred or trash due to the reflections off the window of the bus.
When I got off the bus at the Saturn V center, I bypassed the theater of the Apollo firing room. I had other plans that I had devised only a few minutes earlier.
I went directly to the gift shop and asked a silly question. The woman at the registered looked up as I approached.
I asked if she knew if there were any tickets left for the Up Close tours for the afternoon. The Up Close tour was another tour offered that traveled past the buildings where the astronauts slept before launch and where they assembled the parts of the International Space Station, and stopped at the a spot on the Banana River with a view of several launchpads. It also took visitors inside the VAB.
Unfortunately, they only sold tickets back at the Visitor Center, which meant a 15-20 minute bus ride back where I had just come from. For a chance that there might be an available ticket. Fortunately, the woman agreed to make a call over there and confirmed there were tickets left. I had her ask the person on the other end of the call to hold a ticket for me. I would be there on the next bus. Don’t sell that ticket!
With less than a hour before the next tour left, I hurried on board the return bus and made it back with 30 minutes to buy the ticket and make it back to the bus loading area. I got my ticket and lined up with a few minutes to spare and a sense of déjà vu.
Interestingly, it was the same bus driver who had driven the earlier bus to the Saturn V center. She recognized me and asked if I was just at the Saturn V center. We chuckled as I told her about wanting to see Atlantis up close.
After a stop at the Banana River viewing area, the bus made it’s way to the VAB. Again, we passed by the open door of the VAB and the tail was visible. My heart starting racing.
Having been in the VAB twice before when Space Shuttle Endeavour was there a year earlier, the main attraction I was interested in was Atlantis. I can’t explain why being so close to an orbiter is such a strong magnet for me, but it is. The few times I’ve seen launches have meant quite a bit to me, so any chance to see them up close is like seeing a loved one. You can call me crazy.
Oh Atlantis, I see your nose! You can’t hide from me!
The tour guide stopped short to give an introduction to the VAB. It was so hard waiting for him to finish his story seeing Atlantis only fifty feet away.
Hey girl! You look amazing! My heart was so excited that I couldn’t stop shaking. It was meant to be.
Of the 18 minutes we had to visit, I took over 300 pictures. That averages to one shot every 3.5 seconds. Only slowed down by the several times I asked strangers to take a picture of me with this superstar.
There were so many parts of the transporter, of the orbiter, of the surroundings around the pair. The front connector between the transporter and orbiter.
Every tile is precisely sized and placed to ensure the extreme temperatures were dissipated during reentry.
A gate and a security guard restricted the visitation to looking and not touching. Well, maybe that’s better for the relationship.
Your curves are amazing!
View of Atlantis with fellow visitors in the foreground.
A small pickup truck sized cab was enough room for two people.
The markings on the tiles really show what extreme temperatures can do to one’s complexion. But she made it back in one piece.
A little tape over the eyes isn’t a face-lift, honey.
I spy a GoPro mount.
Technical crew setting up a camera to take timelapse pictures of rollover the following day.
People with special credentials lucky enough to get to take photos of Atlantis from the catwalk.
Time is up. We must go back to the bus. See you later Atlantis!
Was it different from seeing Endeavour a year earlier in the same position? Yes. For one thing, Atlantis was on the transporter, prepared for the rollover to the Visitor Center the next day. Another thing that was different was Atlantis had her nose reassembled. Endeavour was in the process of having toxic chemicals removed when I saw her.
And lastly, an important thing to remember is that all three orbiters are unique machines. They have each traveled over a hundred million miles, been exposed to elements and temperatures, and have safely brought home astronauts and science experiments. Each has an unique story that has changed human life on Earth.
Maybe that’s why it meant so much to see Atlantis in the VAB in her final hours.