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Shuttle Atlantis returns for new mission

$100 million exhibit opens June 29

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Shuttle Atlantis' launch from Kennedy Space Center in July of 2011 marked the end of NASA's shuttle program.  But now, two years later, the Space Shuttle Atlantis is back at Cape Canaveral for a new mission.

"This is as close as you'll get to a shuttle anywhere," said Tim Macy, commander of construction and director of project development at Kennedy Space Center.

Macy oversees crews building the new Atlantis exhibit, where the actual 155,000-pound transporter is the centerpiece of this $100 million exhibit, which opens June 29.

"It's about telling the story of Atlantis but its also about telling the story of NASA and inspiring a whole new generation of people to be interested in space travel," Macy said. "That's what we want to do."

Atlantis was the fourth of five shuttles built by NASA. For 35 years, these ships were the workhorses of America's space program. The International Space Station and Hubble Telescope served as the hallmarks of their 135 missions.

Atlantis alone made 33 flights and flew more than 12 million miles. 

Now, she's perched at 43 percent angle, 30 feet off the ground, in the middle of this 90,000-square-foot attraction. Her payload doors are open wide, as she's only been seen by astronauts on ISS.

"No one ever seen it like this with the doors open, ever," Macy said. "All that white stuff you see on the bottom of the shuttle, that's not dust from construction, that's actual space dust."

This isn't a stripped down model either. Only the engines and a few computers have been removed for future missions.

Outside, crews are putting the final touches on a life-sized mock up of the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters that hoisted Atlantis into space.

Inside, there are more than 60 interactive exhibits, including a full-scale model of the Hubble Telescope.

The end of the shuttle program hurled Florida's Space Coast into an economic black hole. Officials hope the launch of the Atlantis exhibit will renew interest in the role Kennedy Space Center plays in America's Space Program.

"I think there's a misconception that the projects have stopped or NASA has closed or that Kennedy Space Center isn't up and running," Macy said. "It very much is and this kind of shows that."