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Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit showcases her storied career

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Space Shuttle Atlantis, a newly retired spacecraft with a combined 306 days in earth orbit, today rests high above the center ring inside a new $100 million facility spotlighting the enormous work of the NASA space shuttle program.

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Located at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, the Atlantis Exhibit showcases its star attraction poised high above the ground floor and tilted 43.21 degrees in the 90,000 square-foot building.

The unusual tilt is in a countdown fashion allowing visitors to view her underside from the ground level while providing a look inside her payload bay from the top level. Her fifty-foot robotic arm rests parked over the bay giving visitors a true perspective of her working in earth orbit.

Surrounded by the latest in shuttle flight simulators and a full scale mock-up of the Hubble Space Telescope, Atlantis is now retired following the completion of thirty-three space flights between 1985 thru 2011.

Visitors to the new facility begin with a twelve minute theatrical style movie filmed especially for the space center. The high quality feature introduces the public to the origins of the space shuttle program including the detailed work needed to achieve that successful first flight in 1981.

The exhibit has attracted the attention of former astronauts and NASA engineers.

"Watching the video presentation on the space shuttle, I stood there in awe of everything that was accomplished in the thirty year history of the program," four-time space shuttle astronaut Don A. Thomas said with a smile to this aerospace reporter. "Then seeing Atlantis up close in all her glory brought a tear to my eye. Atlantis is there still in orbit, high above earth just as most astronauts would prefer to remember her."

Illuminated in purple light, visitors receive their first glimpse of the majestic orbiter as the movie screen lifts upward revealing Atlantis pointed in their direction.

"I felt extremely proud to have had the incredible opportunity to have flown on the shuttle", said Thomas whose new book Orbit of Discovery is due out this month and chronicles his space shuttle missions. "It's an absolutely stunning exhibit which took my breath away, and brought back a flood of memories about my own four flights."

The exhibit's June 29 grand opening marked the final chapter of America's space shuttle fleet as Atlantis became the last of the three surviving orbiters to move into museum retirement.

Adjacent to the orbiter is a full scale model of the Hubble Space Telescope in which Atlantis made the final servicing trip to in 2009. Detailed history stands and a brief movie accompanies the telescope's own exhibit.

"Amazing!" exclaimed Thomas Howell, a native of nearby Palm Beach on vacation with his wife Debbie. "It's awesome how we can stand here so close to this telescope and a real space shuttle, too. Atlantis is so large."

The Atlantis Exhibit is included in the visitor complex admission price; and is open seven days a week excluding major holidays.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. He covered numerous missions by Atlantis from Kennedy Space Center. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

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